Insights from the UK and beyond
Pressure 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.
Former Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt is calling for a change in the law, to allow people to take terminally ill patients abroad for assisted suicide without fear of prosecution.
The law may say it is illegal but in practice, those who do assist suicide abroad are not being prosecuted in practice.