Law on assisted suicide would end unnecessary suffering

August 3, 2009


- Sarah Wootton is Chief Executive of Dignity in Dying. The opinions expressed are her own -

The decision made by the House of Lords in the case of multiple sclerosis sufferer Debbie Purdy was historic, and a milestone in the campaign for greater choice at the end of life. Lord Brown said “what in mind is needed is custom-built policy statement indicating the various factors for and against prosecution… factors designed to distinguish between those situations in which, however attempted to assist, the prospective aider and abettor should refrain from doing so, and those situations in which he or she may fairly hope to be, if not commended, at the very least forgiven, rather than condemned, for giving assistance”.

In effect the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) will now have to set out the factors which distinguish between two classes of people who help people to travel abroad for an assisted death where it is legal: the compassionate assisters and the malicious encouragers. Consequently, people will be much clearer as to whether they will face prosecution. This will have the effect of relieving the anxiety of relatives at a time of great emotional stress, as well as giving a strong signal to those who want to coerce relatives that they are likely to face the full weight of the law.

Opponents of assisted dying for the terminally ill argue that the current law works as a deterrent. But let’s make things clear: people are not deterred by a law which isn’t enforced – as is currently the case. This is clearly shown by the fact that at least 117 Britons have already travelled abroad to die. Only eight of those cases have even been investigated by the DPP and none prosecuted.

The judgment is significant for two reasons. Firstly, when the DPP publishes guidance it will mean Debbie and others can make an informed choice as to whether somebody can accompany them abroad to die. Secondly, it gives greater protection to those who may have been considered vulnerable to coercion. Put simply, a clear law, which outlines criminal behaviour, is easier to enforce. It also provides a more rational deterrent to abuse than a blanket ban which is never enforced. That must be better than the current legal muddle.

Lord Carlile argues that Debbie’s victory could lead to an unworkable situation for prosecutors. He argues that it sets a precedent for other prosecuting polices for other offences. It is not for me to judge whether other offences need a prosecuting policy, but what I do know is that there is a big difference between our laws on assisted suicide and most other crimes.

In the overwhelming majority of cases all of us will know what the consequences of our actions will be if we break the law. If there is sufficient evidence of a crime being committed we are likely to be prosecuted. This was not the case with the law on assisted suicide; even when there has been clear evidence that the law has been broken no prosecutions have been sought.

Prosecutions have not been deemed in the public interest – and finally now we will know exactly when it is in the public interest to bring a prosecution. Such knowledge will not only allow people to make informed decisions but also protect vulnerable people.

We haven’t just invented the idea for a prosecuting policy. Other serious crimes have prosecuting policies when a nuanced judgment needs to be made by the police and the CPS. Consequently, the Law Lords ruling is not setting a precedent. This is not about liberalising the law – it is about regulating it.

Our campaign has a very simple premise – people should not have to suffer unnecessarily and against their wishes at the end of life. They should have choice; whether this is a natural death eased by palliative care, or an assisted death for those that palliative care can’t help. But such choice must be safeguarded to prevent abuse. And that’s why the result is so significant. A clarified law not only allows people to make informed decisions but acts as a more effective deterrent against abuse.


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