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A Tribute to U.K. Medical Aid-in-Dying Pioneer, Lord Joel Joffe

By Compassion & Choices President Barbara Coombs Lee, RN, PA, FNP, JD

Compassion & Choices is mourning the loss of Joel Joffe, one of the heroes of our worldwide movement and a giant of social justice. One of the greatest honors of my life is that this man — brilliant, kind and courageous in the defense of human rights — became my friend. We understood each other, and I felt humbled to know that in some measure, he returned the enormous admiration I held for him.

Lord Joel Joffe was South African, but I met him in London in 2004, when he brought a bill to the House of Lords to authorize medical aid in dying (known as “assisted dying” in the U.K.). His bill never advanced, so when he died at age 85 on Sunday, June 18, his goal to help the terminally was still unmet.

Joel died peacefully at his beloved home in Liddington, a village in Wiltshire, England, with his wife, Vanetta, and his daughters, Deb, Lisa and Abi, beside him. He died shortly after sending a message of affection and gratitude to his family, friends and colleagues.

As a young lawyer Joel represented Nelson Mandela and eight others prosecuted in 1963 for actions to overturn the apartheid system of institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination. Writing at the end of the trial, these men called him “the general behind the scenes of our defense.”

Much better than words from me, these words written in 1964 by Mandela and others from the Pretoria prison convey Joel’s extraordinary character:

“When our trial started in October 1963, none of us had ever met Joel Joffe before. All we knew of him at the time was that he had cancelled plans to leave South Africa in order to take up our defense. This alone, at a time when frenzied hysteria was being whipped up against us amongst the White population of this country, assured us that he was a man of rare courage and real devotion to the cause of justice …

We have come to admire and respect this quiet, courageous man, whose devotion to the cause of justice has been shown to be in the very highest tradition of his calling. We will be sorry indeed to end our close relationship with him. But we know that, wherever he is, wherever he may go, Joel’s legal brain and service will be at the call of those in need of justice and defense as it has been so fully and well at ours.”

In those days of great reckoning, Joel set his moral compass. I will always believe there can be no surer test of the basic human decency of authorized medical aid in dying than that Lord Joel Joffe, champion of human rights, set his course toward this compassionate medical option. I am confident Joel’s vision of kinder, more merciful law will come into being in the United Kingdom. When it does, it will be thanks to Joel’s early, passionate advocacy to educate people about this end-of-life option to end unbearable suffering peacefully, when no other palliative care treatment provides relief.