Esther Rantzen reveals inspiration for lifetime of campaigning | UK | News

February 2, 2024
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Dame Esther Rantzen’s lifetime of campaigning was inspired by an evil matron who made her feel a “helpless hostage” as a child, she has revealed for the first time.

The indefatigable activist, crusading with the Daily Express to change assisted dying laws, told how a deeply upsetting memory from when she was sick in hospital as a little girl must have subconsciously driven her to fiercely protect people.

Widowed Dame Esther. 83, who has terminal cancer, fronted consumer show That’s Life! and founded the charities ChildLine and later The Silver Line, all of which have championed the vulnerable, marginalised and forgotten. 

But it has only just dawned on her that a lifetime fighting for the underdog was probably born from her chastening time in hospital.

Speaking to broadcaster and former MP Gyles Brandreth, 75, on his podcast, she said being Jewish and at the mercy of others could also have played a part.

She said: “When I was eight I was seriously ill and went to University College Hospital for three months and I had a kidney disease, acute nephritis.

“And I was in the children’s ward. And I caught measles from the child in the next door bed so I was sent to what was called a fever hospital.

“And I was put on a very special diet, I was on a meat-free diet, and I wrote a letter to my mum – I was eight – saying certain things worry me, like ‘they’re not letting me brush my teeth, and they put me back on meat, I’m not on the same diet’.

“And my mother stormed into the hospital with my letter in her hand and demanded to see the doctor and showed him the letter.

“He must have torn a strip off the nurses because mum came to see me and after she left the matron came and sat on my bed and said ‘If you ever write a letter like that again Esther, I shall have to read every letter before you send it’.

“And that taught me about being a hostage – and I never forgot it. I ticked my mum off and said she got me into terrible trouble.

“And I never forgot that, and it continued to inspire me that there are people who cannot ask for help because of their situation.”

Dame Esther, diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in January last year, has joined Swiss suicide clinic Dignitas and has joined forces with this newspaper to spearheaded a change “cruel and outdated” law which punishes assisting someone to die with potential murder or manslaughter charges. 

Our petition, launched last month, has now attracted more than 90,000 signatures. At 100,000 MPs must consider debating the issue in Parliament. 

Speaking on his Rosebud podcast, in which Mr Brandreth talks to famous and fascinating people about their first memories and experiences, Dame Esther said: “I think sometimes the experience of an unhappy moment in your life does stay with you and make you try and protect other people.

“Certainly the people who wrote to us on That’s Life! were motivated by wanting to protect people from going through what they had been through.

“And so I think it could have been.

“I also think it could have helped being Jewish because it taught me how much the minority depends on the tolerance, compassion and generosity of the majority, so that was formative too.”

Our assisted dying campaign, run with charity Dignity in Dying, has earned the backing of renowned broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby, legendary Woman’s Hour host Dame Jenni Murray, Great British Bake Off judge Prue Leith and political titan Ruth Davidson, as well as tens of thousands of ordinary families all of whom face a similar predicament and want the right to die.

Urging lawmakers to act, Dame Esther said: “Must terminally ill patients travel alone to Switzerland to obtain the gentle, peaceful death we would surely all choose? Our best hope is our petition reaches its goal which will ensure it is debated in Parliament. We are so close now.

“I cannot express how deeply I have been moved by the letters I have received, and the extraordinary response to our petition. 

“I have been incredibly inspired by the compassion and support I have received. Not only from those who share my view, and describe their experience of losing someone they love, memories which must cause them so much pain to share, but they do so because they know their evidence proves how inhumane the current law can be. 

“We are calling for the right for all of us to choose. It’s our life, it should be our choice.”

* To sign visit https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/653593



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