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Royle Family star Sue Johnston has backed Dame Esther Rantzen’s assisted dying campaign. 

The 80-year-old actress says she supports the terminally ill being able to end their own lives, provided there are legal safeguards.

Her comments come amid a widespread debate over the issue in recent weeks, sparked by Dame Esther‘s announcement that she has joined the assisted dying clinic Dignitas in Switzerland.

Dame Esther, 83, has lung cancer and has called on MPs to hold a debate when Parliament returns for a free vote on assisted dying – with recent polls showing growing public support.

Talking to Saga magazine, Ms Johnston – who played Barbara Royle in the BBC comedy and has also starred in Coronation Street, Brookside and Downton Abbey – said she is in favour of legalising it.

Royle Family star Sue Johnston, 80, says people should have the right to die as she backs Dame Esther Rantzen’s assisted dying campaign

Sue Johnston, 80, says she supports the terminally ill being able to end their own lives, provided there are legal safeguards

Ms Johnston's comments come amid a widespread debate over the issue in recent weeks, sparked by Rantzen's announcement that she has joined the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland

Ms Johnston’s comments come amid a widespread debate over the issue in recent weeks, sparked by Rantzen’s announcement that she has joined the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland

‘I think it’s an option that people should be able to have – it’s their life, their choice,’ she said.

‘I don’t know whether I’d want it myself, but then I’m not in a position where life is intolerable. 

Is Assisted Suicide illegal in Britain? 

Under the Suicide Act 1961, anyone helping or encouraging someone to take their own life in England or Wales can be prosecuted and jailed for up to 14 years if found guilty of an offence.

Section two of the act states that a person commits an offence if they carry out an act capable of encouraging or assisting the suicide or attempted suicide of another person, and the act was intended to encourage or assist suicide or an attempt at suicide.

In 2015 MPs including former prime minister David Cameron rejected a Bill to legalise assisted dying.

Opposition to changing the law has come from faith groups, campaigners who say disabled people may feel pressured to end their lives and campaigners who fear assisted dying would become a business.

‘Of course, people can be ruthless, and they may take advantage of a change in law to get rid of people, so it would all have to be safeguarded. But it would be, there’d be laws.’

The actress then compared the situation to pets.

‘I have animals and when they’re in terrible pain, we put them to sleep,’ she said. ‘It’s heartbreaking but we do it for their sake, because we want to spare them the suffering.’

Ms Johnston had her beloved German shepherd dog Betsy put down two years ago.

She said: ‘She got cancer and deteriorated very quickly. She was just in such agony so she was put down. It’s painful saying goodbye to your pets and we wonder why we put ourselves through that.’

Dame Esther has made renewed calls for assisted dying to be made an option for terminally ill people after families watching loved ones go through palliative care have had their memories ‘obliterated’. 

Her call on MPs to hold a debate when Parliament returns into 2024 for a free vote on assisted dying comes just weeks after the Childline founder, who has stage four lung cancer, revealed that she had joined the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland as an option in case her health does not improve. 

Dame Esther said: ‘I think as a humane decision to have the debate as soon as possible, to have a free vote, would be right for millions of people – at least we would discuss it.’ 

According to a survey by Deltapoll 71 per cent of the public supported assisted dying being made legal in the UK with 13 per cent opposing and 16 per cent being unsure. Meanwhile 72 per cent supported plans for a free vote. 

The broadcasting legend said the poll indicating strong public support is due to people feeling ‘that’s all we’re asking for, is the choice’.

Sue Johnston in the Royle Family.

Sue Johnston in the Royle Family. 

Ms Johnston said: 'I think it's an option that people should be able to have - it's their life, their choice' (File Photo)

Ms Johnston said: ‘I think it’s an option that people should be able to have – it’s their life, their choice’ (File Photo)

Dame Esther (pictured at her home in the New Forest with her four grandchildren) explained to her family that she didn't 'want their last memories of me to be painful'

Dame Esther (pictured at her home in the New Forest with her four grandchildren) explained to her family that she didn’t ‘want their last memories of me to be painful’

‘We’re not asking for this to be imposed on anyone, people have very strong beliefs, some religious beliefs, which would make it impossible for them, we fully understand that,’ she told the Mirror.

‘But the rest of us I think feel that we want to be able to choose a death which does not mean our family has to watch us suffering.

‘I think for me that is my principle concern because I know a memory of a bad death, a painful death, somebody who is longing to die but is being kept alive and suffering, that memory obliterates previous memories of happiness, or can do.

‘What we don’t want now is for people who are adamantly against assisted dying to impose their views on us.’

Dying in Dignity told the paper that the poll showed ‘the vast majority of the British public want to see a new law that gives dying people choice and control over the ends of their lives’.

Currently, assisted suicide is banned in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with a maximum prison sentence of 14 years. A bill to make assisted dying legal failed to pass in 2015.

Since Dame Esther announced that she planned to ‘buzz off to Zurich’ if the new medication to treat her cancer stopped working, politicians have been voicing their support for another parliamentary vote.

Tory MP Mel Stride, who was one of 27 Conservative MPs to vote in favour of legalising assisted dying eight years ago, said he was ‘not averse’ to another parliamentary vote. 

Speaking on the issue he made clear that the Government would not bring forward fresh legislation on the issue but signalled that he would be happy to debate it further.

The minister, who was elected in 2010, told the Today Programme: ‘The government has not decided to bring forward legislation, I think I need to make that very clear.

Assisted dying clinic Dignitas (pictured) is near Zurich in Switzerland

Assisted dying clinic Dignitas (pictured) is near Zurich in Switzerland 

Pictured: A bed in the clinic Dignitas assisted suicide clinic near Zurich, Switzerland

Pictured: A bed in the clinic Dignitas assisted suicide clinic near Zurich, Switzerland 

‘But if Parliament in some form or another decided that it wanted to have a fresh look at this, given it was some years ago that we last did so, that’s not something that I would be resistant to.’

Another Tory MP Alicia Kearns has called for another vote on legalising assisted dying.

Tweeting after Dame Esther revealed her plan, the MP for Rutland and Melton said: ‘Dame Esther is absolutely right, Parliament needs to have a vote on assisted dying, and it needs to be a free vote.’

She said there had been a ‘fundamental shift in the country’ and ‘in parliament’ since 2015.

Ms Kearns told the BBC: ‘Since I was elected we’ve had a number of debates on this and you can barely get a chance to speak.

‘The amount of my colleagues who say I’ve reflected, I’ve changed my views… I really do think that the national conversation has changed.’ 

Levelling Up minister Michael Gove also thought it would be ‘appropriate’ to ‘revisit’ the issue in the Commons, despite not being personally persuaded.

He said earlier this month: ‘I am not yet persuaded of the case for assisted dying but I do think it’s appropriate for the Commons to revisit this.

Dame Esther said: 'I think as a humane decision to have the debate as soon as possible, to have a free vote, would be right for millions of people - at least we would discuss it' (File Photo)

Dame Esther said: ‘I think as a humane decision to have the debate as soon as possible, to have a free vote, would be right for millions of people – at least we would discuss it’ (File Photo)

Dane Esther spent Christmas with her family. Pictured: (Seated L-R) Teddy, Alexander, Romily, Kelly Florence, (Standing L-R) Rebecca Wilcox, Joshua, Esther, Benjamin and Miriam

Dane Esther spent Christmas with her family. Pictured: (Seated L-R) Teddy, Alexander, Romily, Kelly Florence, (Standing L-R) Rebecca Wilcox, Joshua, Esther, Benjamin and Miriam

Rebecca Wilcox previously said she fears she could be accused of murder if she helps her seriously ill mother travel to Dignitas

Rebecca Wilcox previously said she fears she could be accused of murder if she helps her seriously ill mother travel to Dignitas

‘I think it was in the last Parliament that we had a debate on it and as I say, I am not yet persuaded but I would want to listen with humility to Dame Esther and others outline the case.’

Health Secretary Victoria Atkins, however, refused to give her personal view on the vote, citing her ‘responsibility’ as a minister. 

Ms Atkins said she recognised how ‘incredibly emotional’ the issue is, but re-stated the Government’s line that it should be up to Parliament whether or not to have another debate on changing the law. 

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman previously said the Government position has not changed so it remains a matter for Parliament to decide. 

On the other side of the bench Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting agreed that Parliament ‘would probably be in a different place’ now than it was eight years ago.

He previously told LBC: ‘When I first became an MP we had a vote on assisted dying in Parliament. It was lost heavily. I think Parliament probably be in a different place now. This will be a free vote issue anyway, so Labour wouldn’t have a position.’

Dame Esther revealed her plans earlier this month, telling the BBC’s Today: ‘I have in my brain though, well, if the next scan says nothing’s working I might buzz off to Zurich but, you know, it puts my family and friends in a difficult position because they would want to go with me. And that means that the police might prosecute them.

The veteran broadcaster, 83, (pictured in October 2022) has urged MPs to hold a debate when Parliament returns into 2024 for a free vote

The veteran broadcaster, 83, (pictured in October 2022) has urged MPs to hold a debate when Parliament returns into 2024 for a free vote

Dame Esther said that she had discussed the issue with her family and they had told her it was her 'decision' and 'choice'

Dame Esther said that she had discussed the issue with her family and they had told her it was her ‘decision’ and ‘choice’

She has called for a free vote on assisted dying as it's 'important that the law catches up with what the country wants'

She has called for a free vote on assisted dying as it’s ‘important that the law catches up with what the country wants’

‘So we’ve got to do something. At the moment, it’s not really working, is it?’

Dame Esther said that she had discussed the issue with her family and they had told her it was her ‘decision’ and ‘choice’.

She continued: ‘I explained to them that actually I don’t want their last memories of me to be painful because if you watch someone you love having a bad death, that memory obliterates all the happy times and I don’t want that to happen.

‘I don’t want to be that sort of victim in their lives.’

Yet after the announcement was made her daughter Rebecca Wilcox spoke of how she would ‘want to ground the plane’ if her mother decided to fly to Dignitas.

She told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: ‘She never makes a decision in complete isolation, but she doesn’t care what anyone else says.

‘It’s horrific and she always promised us she would live forever. She’s not usually one to break her promises so we’re a little upset about that.

‘I would personally want to ground her plane if she was going to fly to Zurich but I know it’s her decision. I just don’t ever want her to go.’

Speaking after Christmas she gave a heartbreaking insight into what could be her last Christmas Day with her mother, but added she was ‘determined to make the most of it’. 

‘It’s not often that you know beforehand it will be the last time you will dish out turkey and pull crackers at the table with your mother, but that’s what this year has been for us,’ she told the Mirror.

‘She thought she would be dead in spring, but a miraculous drug has meant that we have another Christmas with her, a wonder we couldn’t have imagined possible when she was diagnosed in January. I was determined to make the most of it.’

An inquiry into perspectives on assisted dying in England and Wales was launched in December 2022 and the Health and Social Care Committee is due to publish its report on the issue.



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