Inspiring us all...

In December 1997, after a five year struggle with motor neurone disease, Annie Lindsell died at the age of 47. Her death occurred only weeks after she was assured that her doctor could take steps to prevent her ending her life in pain and terror. For Lindsell herself, though, the help in dying which she had fought to be allowed was never needed.

Lindsell had watched several friends die of the disease, and was all too aware of the course it could take. The prospect of spending her last days completely paralyzed and slowly suffocating was one that she dreaded. Faced with such a prospect, many who support the right to die would make their own discreet arrangements for guaranteeing a painless death. This was not the way of Annie Lindsell, who saw no reason why she should have to resort to subterfuge and deceit just to take control over her own life. Instead, she challenged head on the system that threatened to impose this fate upon her.

Despite the toll that the disease took on her body during its latter stages, she took her case to the High Court, demanding reassurance that her doctor would not face prosecution if he administered painkilling drugs in a dosage high enough to end her life. In the end, she was granted the assurance that she so desperately sought - although perhaps not in the way that she would ideally have wanted. The Court itself never actually issued a decision, but evidence from the medical profession convinced the doctor himself that he could give Lindsell what she wanted.  VESS members and the wider public knew Lindsell as one of assisted suicide’s most effective and charismatic advocates.  But she had led a rich and varied life before her diagnosis sparked an interest in right to die issues. Her energy and vivacity saw her achieve success in a range of fields, and in her relatively short life, she was a dancer, singer, air stewardess and launched her own management training consultancy.

For those VESS members who were present at the 1996 AGM, though, the most powerful memory of Annie Lindsell will be the remarkable speech that she delivered that day, asking her audience to close their eyes and imagine themselves in the situation of a MND sufferer. Yet when arguing for the right to die, Lindsell never hid behind her disability. Her speeches stirred powerful emotions, but they did so by the power of the imagery she evoked and not because she played on the audience’s sympathy for her condition. She was articulate and logical as well as charismatic and passionate - a combination which would have served her well had she opted for a career in politics or law.

In the end, it was inevitable that Annie Lindsell would lose her battle against motor neurone disease. But in the weeks before her death, she won another battle, a battle that saw this remarkable woman draw on astonishing reserves of courage and strength to seize control of her own destiny. It may seem ironic that, after her strenuous efforts, Lindsell herself did not need to make use of the right recognized in the High Court. But that would be to miss the point that she died safe in the knowledge that her death, if tragically premature, would at least be painless, dignified, and on her own terms.  

Colin Gavaghan