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A Parting Glance - Reminiscences on Retiring

John Beloff reviews 14 years of VESS

John Beloff

I joined VESS, at the prompting of Sheila Little, in 1983. I never met George Mair, the Stirling surgeon who founded our Society in 1980, when we broke away from the London based Society so as to be able to circulate our handbook, How to Die with Dignity (the first suicide guide to be published anywhere in the world). By 1983, however, George Mair was too ill to participate in the Society's doings. At the AGM in Edinburgh that Summer I was elected onto the Executive Committee. My sponsors were Sheila Little who was seconded by Hugh Wynne. I have been a member of the Committee from then on. I came to know most of those who were prominent in the early pioneering days of the Society and I recall with special affection Thea and Jacob Miller, Ruth Barr, Albury Sanders, Jeannie Geddes and Greta Gross.

1983 was the year in which the Society changed its name from Scottish Exit to its present designation, a move which followed that of the London-based Society which had run into a spot of trouble following the prosecution of its over-enthusiastic General Secretary, Nicholas Reed. He had overstepped legal bounds by assisting would-be suicides and paid for it by a spell in prison. I still regret our change of name. Exit is so much more elegant and succinct. But we could hardly have clung to it once the London based Society had abandoned it.

My earliest contribution to our Newsletter came in the Spring issue for 1984 with an article Suicide: A Humanist Viewpoint. In the Autumn issue of that year I wrote a second article titled Personal Statement in which I declared, en passant, "Frankly, I do not expect to live to see ultimate victory. I was then 64, I am now 77 and, though there has indeed been steady progress which I would not wish to belittle, "ultimate victory" - by which I mean legalization in this country - still seems a long way off and I am resigned to the fact that, if I find it necessary to end my life, I shall have to act on my own.

At the 1985 AGM in Glasgow I took over from Sheila Little as Chairman. Should any reader wish to know more about me, my career, my family background etc, they can consult the Profile of Our New Chairman which Jacob Miller published in the April 1985 issue of our Newsletter on the basis of an interview. There it says: "He has always been a firm believer in the importance of people being able to control their own lives and, for him, this includes being able to choose when to die" or, again "The task of the Society he sees as one of relentless propaganda to make the public aware of the need for legislation in this area and, at the same time, allay fear and misgivings which the prospect inevitably arouses." In the September Newsletter for that year there is a piece by our current Executive Secretary, Chris Docker, then a member of the Committee (which I had encouraged him to publish) in which he writes: "The problem is not one of intelligence but of moral fortitude", and he cites Christiaan Barnard as saying: "it has taken me my entire career to face up to writing a book in open support of euthanasia."

VESS is, of course, but one element in a world-wide movement and in November 1985 I attended my first international conference. This was the Fifth European Congress for Dying with Dignity that was held in Frankfurt and which I reported in the December Newsletter of that year. Hans Atrott was then very prominent and it was he who persuaded Dr Barnard to address the Congress. Unfortunately, a group of rowdies had first to be ejected from the hall. As Atrott had painfully to explain: "The spectre of Hitler still haunts all our attempts to present our case in Germany." Even so, under his direction, the German Society became the strongest European Society after that of the Netherlands, an achievement worth noting despite his later fall from grace.

In the following year, 1986, voluntary euthanasia came up for debate in the House of Lords with Lord Jenkins of Putney's Suicide Act (1961) Amendment Bill. Although several of the noble lords spoke eloquently in its favour - though not, alas, my elder brother Max (Lord Beloff) on whom I have never had any influence - the bill was defeated by 48 votes to 15.

In the Summer of 1986, a group meeting was held at my house in Blacket Place at which Dr Alexander McCall Smith of the Department of Civil Law of the University of Edinburgh was our guest speaker. He expounded for our benefit the legal situation in Scotland with respect to assisted suicide. We have been fortunate in having this eminent legal authority as a friendly advisor to the Society over the years.

In November 1986 I attended my first World Federation Conference which was held on that occasion in Bombay. It was hosted by the Indian Society under the chairmanship of its founder, Mr Minoo Masani who was also at that time President of the World Federation. The star speaker at that conference was Sir Edmund Hillary, conqueror of Everest, who was then High Commissioner in Delhi for New Zealand. He boldly declared that "if I should become incapacitated, terminally ill, senile or in great pain ...I do not wish to be kept alive."

My own humble contribution on that occasion was a paper in which I argued that circumstances could arise in which killing should be regarded as morally preferable to letting die. I was followed by the redoubtable Derek Humphry, founder and leader of Hemlock. He spoke about the problems facing a Society which seeks to give practical advice to its members. He and I have remained on friendly terms ever since.

In 1987, one of our most active supporters, Jeannie Geddes, took her own life using the plastic bag technique. Jeannie was the wife of Arthur Geddes, lecturer in Geography at the University of Edinburgh and son of the eminent pioneer of town planning, Sir Patrick Geddes. Her son, Colin Geddes was then, also, an active supporter of VESS. There is a moving tribute to Jeannie by her dear friend, Sheila Little, in the September 1987 Newsletter.

That Summer, I gave a talk to our Edinburgh Group that was later published in our Newsletter with the title Do we Have a Duty to Die? In it I defended the controversial thesis that there may be circumstances when, not only do we have a right to die with dignity, but we may have a duty to do so for the sake of our loved ones.

At the AGM that Summer, our guest speaker was the formidable Dr Colin Brewer. His lively address (which appeared in the September Newsletter) bore the title: Darkness at Midnight: Methods and Manners of Suicide and V.E. from George V to Arthur Koestler. Koestler had died in 1983 and I had been present at his funeral. In the following year, 1988, my fourth and last as Hon. Chairman, I gave a talk in London at a symposium organised by the London Medical Group which I called Why the BMA is Wrong. Then, at the AGM in Perth, in June 1989, I retired as Chairman in favour of Dr Hugh Wynne. Zeb Koryczinska, who later became Chairman, was his Vice-Chairman. Chris Docker was then still Hon. Treasurer, a post he had held since 1987. Since 1989, I have retained the post of Hon.Secretary and Editor of the Newsletter.

Managing the Edinburgh Group has been one of my duties and I made a practice of having two meetings a year at which a distingushed visitor would be invited to speak. But, in the Summer of 1989, I offered myself as the speaker and I chose as my theme Is there anything beyond death?. Death is a topic that interested psychical researchers long before the Voluntary Euthanasia movement was founded and, with this topic, I was able to combine two of my major preoccupations: euthanasia and psychical research. I have in my time been president of the SPR (Society for Psychical Research) as well as Chairman of VESS.

In July 1990, another of our prominent women supporters, Ruth Barr, took her own life at the age of 87. She had recently been in a car accident but before that was remarkably well preserved. She was born in Texas but had long been a resident of Perth where her late husband, if I recall correctly, had been a minister. She was a fearless and outspoken woman whom I remember with affection. Her farewell Letter to My Friends appears in the September 1990 Newsletter. In the following year Sheila Little died at the age of 85 after a lengthy stay in hospital. The whole of the April 1991 Newsletter is devoted to her memory. It signalled a new era in the affairs of VESS. With the help of her faithful secretary, Nancy Robinson, and in consultation with the elected Committee, Sheila had run the day to day affairs of the Society. As Hon.Secretary I made a practice of spending two afternoons a week in the office to offer what help I could.

The post-Sheila Little era has seen big changes both in the Society and in the office. First a number of large and unexpected legacies enabled us to modernise the office with computers, photocopiers, fax-machines etc. Secondly, the appointment of Chris Docker as Executive Secretary in 1992 and Co-Editor of the Newsletter in 1993 has greatly raised the profile of the Society with the press and public. Chris was also the initiator of Departing Drugs, the modern successor to George Mair's How to Die with Dignity, which can be purchased by our members, and he produced a new version of our Living Will. I know that some people find Chris a somewhat abrasive character but I would like to say here that he and I have always been on the best of terms.

One of the things which the Society decided to do with its new-found wealth was to commission Professor Sheila MacLean of the Institute of Law & Ethics in Medicine at the University of Glasgow to produce a well researched report on the overall feasability of legalising Physician Assisted Suicide at the present time. The idea was that this could then be sent to members of Parliament in preparation for introducing an appropriate bill. Our money seems to have been well spent inasmuch as an authoritative report has now appeared under the title Sometimes a Small Victory by Sheila McLean and Alison Britton.

In April 1994, Alastair Haggart, a retired Episcopalian Bishop and a long-time sympathiser with our cause, became our new Chairman and I have watched with admiration the skill and quiet diplomacy with which he has conducted the often heated sessions of our Executive Committee. We are also fortunate now to have on our Committee two such knowledgeable social scientists and stalwart champions as Kay Carmichael and her husband David Donnison. All in all, I am satisfied that I am leaving the running of VESS in good hands.

© 1997 VESS

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