A landmark ruling earlier this year in favor of a terminally ill woman who wanted her husband to help her die has sparked fresh fears over the legalization of assisted suicide in the United Kingdom. The decision has put the judiciary on a collision course with the British Parliament, the Catholic Church, and pro-life groups. All three have expressed outrage at the judiciary’s attempt to change UK suicide laws without the say of the people.
The debate hinges on the case of Debbie Purdy, a 46-year-old woman from Bradford in the north of England. Purdy, a former journalist, suffers from multiple sclerosis and is considering the possibility of travelling abroad for an assisted suicide. In July of this year, she won a long-running legal battle to have the law on assisted suicide “clarified.”
The unprecedented ruling forces the authorities to publish new guidance on the circumstances under which a person could be prosecuted for helping someone to die.
At the heart of Purdy’s “right-todie” fight is the fate of her husband, Omar Puente, a Cuban violinist whom she met while working as a journalist. Purdy was seeking reassurances over whether her husband would be prosecuted if he helped her go abroad to die.
Her legal team had argued that the Director of Public Prosecutions of England and Wales, a senior prosecutor appointed by the Attorney General, acted illegally by not providing guidelines on how decisions over prosecutions are to be reached. It is not the first time someone has attempted this in England. In 2001, Diane Pretty, who had motor neurone disease, failed to get immunity from prosecution for her husband if he helped her to die in the UK. Pretty, from Luton, north of London, died the following year in 2002, aged 43, having suffered a string of lung and chest problems.
Purdy, who uses a wheelchair and has sight and hearing problems, began a similar battle in the British courts last year. Her case was rejected in both the High Court and Court of Appeal but those decisions were overturned in the House of Lords in July. Five Law Lords ruled unanimously in her favor and said she also had the right to choose how she died, under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Purdy’s legal victory seems all the more remarkable given that the House of Lords had rejected an attempt to decriminalize assisted suicide just three weeks earlier. Peers in the Upper House of Parliament had been asked to decide in a free vote whether a person should be exempt from prosecution if that person enables or assists a terminally ill patient intent on committing suicide to travel to another country where assisted dying is legal.
The proposed change in the law was the result of months of lobbying by Dignity in Dying, the group formerly known as the Voluntary Euthanasia Society. A group of four Labor peers were accused of hijacking a generic criminal justice bill earlier this year when they introduced into it an amendment in support of assisted suicide.
THIN EDGE OF THE WEDGE
Lord Alton of Liverpool, an independent peer and a Catholic, described the drive to change the law as the “classic thin edge of the wedge.” Alton, a former Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament and a leading pro-life campaigner, warns: “This is the third time we have had an attempt to legislate in this way in this Parliament. The medical bodies—the British Medical Association and the royal colleges—remain opposed to any change. They know it would change the medical profession irreversibly if doctors and nurses become destroyers of life rather than defenders. This marks the beginning of the creation of a death cult.”
At present, the 1961 Suicide Act makes it an offense to aid, abet, counsel, or procure a suicide or suicide attempt in England and Wales. The law is almost the same in Northern Ireland. In Scotland there is no specific law on assisted suicide, although prosecutions could take place under homicide legislation.
To date more than 100 UK citizens have gone overseas to Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal. They have ended their lives at Dignitas in Zurich, the only clinic in the world that helps foreigners to die. Although assisted suicide is a criminal offense in Britain, no family members who have helped loved ones to die have been prosecuted.
Pro-life groups in the UK are angry that no prosecutions have been brought and accuse the judiciary of “seeking to take over from the legislature.” They note that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the leader of the Conservatives, David Cameron, have made it clear they would oppose any attempts to change the law on euthanasia or assisted suicide.
If Parliament has no interest in changing the law, it seems all the more unsettling that one woman’s legal battle could undo it. The most significant aspect of Debbie Purdy’s victory is that it requires Keir Starmer, the director of public prosecutions (DPP), to publish guidelines laying out the grounds for prosecuting assisted suicide decisions. Ironically, the DPP had previously argued in court that it could not adopt a “case-specific policy” and only Parliament could decide if the law should change.
A DUBIOUS FRAME WORK
In late September by order of the Law Lords, the DPP released an interim document and announced the beginning of a three-month consultation period. Although the final policy won’t be decided until the end of the consultation, the new framework came into effect immediately with the publication of the interim guidelines. The guidance sets out 16 factors that could determine whether a prosecution goes forward. Key factors that might influence the authorities to prosecute include:
- whether a person stands to benefit financially from assisting a suicide;
- whether they were acting out of compassion;
- if the individual who had expressed a wish to die was deemed competent to make the decision;
- whether the person wishing to die was under 18 or had a mental illness;
- whether the person was persuaded or pressured into committing suicide.
The prosecuting policy also lists factors against prosecution. These include:
- an individual with a terminal illness;
- a person with a severe and incurable physical disability;
- someone suffering from a severe degenerative physical condition from which there was no possibility of recovery.
The DPP has insisted the new framework does not represent a change in the law. But its guidelines guarantee such a change. Critics note that the guidelines open the way for relatives of sick and terminally ill people to travel to the Swiss Dignitas clinic to help their loved ones commit suicide without fear of prosecution under the 1961 Suicide Act.
The guidelines also raise significant questions about the rights of terminally ill people, the disabled, the sick, and the elderly. Archbishop Peter Smith of Cardiff is chairman of the English and Welsh bishops’ Department of Christian Responsibility and Citizenship. He echoed these concerns in a statementreleased on the same day as the DPP’s draft guidance: “The law against assisted suicide gives expression to a profound moral intuition about the value of every human life. It exists to protect vulnerable people, and any weakening of that legal protection would carry with it great dangers.”
The bishops of England and Wales are currently taking legal advice and preparing their own response to the DPP consultation. Right to Life, a crossparty parliamentary pressure group, is also consulting lawyers with a view to taking action against the DPP.
Phyllis Bowman, the group’s executive officer, speaks for many Catholic parliamentarians when she calls the guidelines a “scandal.” Bowman, a convert to Catholicism, is also cofounder of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, set up in 1966 to lobby against the legalization of abortion in the UK.
She insists the DPP guidelines “outline an interim policy which in effect will make it legal to assist in a suicide.” She also believes the public consultation is a smokescreen and accuses the DPP of “truly playing with fire.”
She says: “It is not the job of Mr. Keir Starmer, QC (the DPP), nor his superiors, the Law Lords, to change the law. Yet, while admitting that it is not their job to change the law, the DPP has done precisely that, excusing himself in his massive advance publicity campaign with the claim that public opinion is with him. Since when have the judiciary applied the law in this country according to opinion polls? Most surveys show that the public support capital punishment—but this has not swayed Parliament, nor has it resulted in the judiciary running a campaign to bring back hanging.”
She adds: “Once you allow assisted suicide it is only a matter of time before it becomes euthanasia. One leads to the other. We are dealing with pro euthanasia Law Lords who have changed the entire spirit of the law. They couldn’t change the law themselves but they could order the DPP to issue guidelines. They are supposed to interpret the law, not manipulate it.”
Two leading Catholic members of parliament, Jim Dobbin and Ann Widdecombe, have also vowed to challenge the guidelines. In a joint statement, they say: “In this country we have a democracy in which Parliament is responsible for legislation and we intend to protect this from a judiciary which evidently thinks that it can take over our role and produce laws according to public opinion.”
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