Britain muddles through with assisted suicide guidelines

September 24, 2009

purdyPressure is growing in Europe for some form of legalised euthanasia but few governments have gone as far as the Benelux countries in allowing assisted suicide in clearly defined cases. The mix of growing public support for ending lives of the terminally ill or brain dead but continued prohibitions on it in the law has led to some long and hard-fought legal battles in Italy (Eluana Englaro) and in France (Vincent Humbert).

(Photo: Multiple sclerosis sufferer Debbie Purdy, whose case prompted Britain’s new guidelines, 2 June 2009/Stephen Hird)

It has also created a legal and ethical twilight zone where for compassionate reasons the law did not really punish the doctors, nurses or relatives who helped someone die. In France, this became clear in a number of court cases where the person accused of assisted suicide were convicted but got only a short suspended sentence. In Britain, a frequently used way to get around the law has been the so-called “suicide tourism” route to the Dignitas suicide group in Zurich.

Pressed by the Law Lords to clarify British policy, the Director of Public Prosecutions in London has issued guidelines indicating when someone who helps another person to commit suicide might face legal action. At first glace, this may seem like a clarification. But it still leaves enough questions out there to leave the issue shrouded in uncertainty. The reception in London has been mixed. Some commentators say this strikes a sensible balance but others think it’s not enough and parliament has to debate and legislate on it.

The guidelines are listed below and here is our news report explaining the story.

Undertakers remove body of assisted suicide from Dignitas office in Zurich, 20 Jan 2003/Sebastian Derungs

Do you think governments such as Britain’s should take a clear decision to keep the euthanasia ban or scrap it? Or do you think they should leave some leeway, as in the case of these guidelines, to let families make the final decision for relatives who suffer fromĀ  terminal illnesses or want to end their lives because of severe and incurable physical disabilities?

(Photo: Undertakers remove body of assisted suicide from Dignitas office in Zurich, 20 Jan 2003/Sebastian Derungs)

Among factors weighing against a prosecution are:

  • The victim expressed a clear wish to commit suicide
  • The victim asked for assistance in killing themselves
  • The victim had a terminal illness or a severe and incurable physical disability; or a severe degenerative physical condition
  • Those assisting were wholly motivated by compassion
  • The victim was physically unable to undertake the act that constituted assistance
  • The act of assistance or influence was judged to be relatively minor

Among factors weighing in favour of prosecution:

  • The suicide victim was under 18 years old
  • The victim’s capacity to make an informed decision on suicide was affected by illness or learning difficulties
  • The victim did not have a terminal illness, nor a severe and incurable physical disability nor a severe degenerative physical condition
  • The victim had not unequivocally indicated a wish to kill themselves
  • The victim had not personally asked for assistance

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One comment

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While one can sympathise with the desire of certain people for hard and fast rules, I think the existing system in the UK is probably best. If the circumstances under which people will and will not be prosecuted are codified by Parliament, then it will be substantially easier for those who might seek to do so to “game” the system than it is if those circumstances are left at the discretion of the DPP.

A question, though: I was under the impression that the European Convention on Human Rights did not provide for people to waive their rights (I’m not a lawyer, so I may be mistaken here). If this is true, then it appears that assisted suicide will always be a crime; the question is merely whether you choose to prosecute it or not.

Posted by Ian Kemmish | Report as abusive