UK Catholics warn against “decriminalising” suicide

November 20, 2009

BRITAIN/Catholic bishops in England and Wales warned against people thinking they may be exempt from prosecution in assisting suicide after new guidelines were issued.

The  Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) set out the guidelines in September in an attempt to bring greater clarity to the thorny issue of prosecution, inviting comments during a consultation period.

Suicide is still against the law in Britain, but the high-profile case of multiple sclerosis sufferer Debbie Purdy, from Bradford, northern England, who has sought clarification on whether her husband would be prosecuted if he helped her go abroad to die, has been an impetus for the guidelines. 

They set out a range of factors influencing whether a person would face prosecution or not. In favour of prosecution would be if there were a financial motive involved, pressure put on the individual into committing suicide and if the person wanting to die was suffering from mental illness.

Factors against prosecution would include whether the suspect was motivated wholly by compassion and was a spouse, partner, close relative or personal friend.

But the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales said the guidance did not protect the vulnerable such as the disabled, the terminally ill and those prone to carrying out repeated suicide attempts in the form of a shout of help.

They also said it should not assume spouses and partners will always be supportive. “Indeed, crimes of violence are very commonly carried out by someone known to the victim not infrequently within the same family,” they said.

While acknowledging the DPP had a difficult job, they said the word “assisting” should be reconsidered in preference for “aiding and abetting”, which reflected the law.

They warned against a culture shift in which “assisted suicide” becomes partly “decriminalised” or that the DPP authorises “exceptions to the law”.

“This could in turn lead to a much wider range of cases of assisted suicide, even including the facilitation of suicide within the United Kingdom by medical professionals,” they said.

A similar line was adopted by the Church of England, which separately issued its response on the same day.

“The Church of England believes that every suicide is a tragedy and that a caring society ought to ensure that anyone considering suicide is able to have ready access to life-affirming and life-enhancing support, counselling and medical and nursing care,” it said in a statement.

“It is essential that assisted suicide is never deemed to be acceptable or commendable. Aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring a suicide remains a crime and we are assured that the DPP’s guidelines are not intended to or designed to compromise this.”

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