English prosecutors consider guidelines advising against charges for those who assist in ‘mercy killings’

Jonah McKeown   By Jonah McKeown for CNA


Lady Justice atop the Old Bailey in London. / antb/Shutterstock.

London, England, Jan 14, 2022 / 14:07 pm (CNA).

The Crown Prosecution Service, which brings criminal charges in England and Wales, is considering a proposal to examine “mercy killings” that would advise against charging those who assist in the deaths of gravely ill people who wish for assisted suicide or euthanasia if there is evidence that the person wanted to die.

The CPS is seeking the public’s input as new guidelines are considered.

Max Hill, Director of Public Prosecutions, told the PA News Agency that in the case of “mercy killings,” “prosecution may be required, but there are circumstances where actually, even where you have the evidence, you may be able to move away from prosecution – for example, where there is evidence of a settled intention on the part of the victim that their life should come to an end, and that what happens is at the time of their choosing.”

“At one end of that spectrum, these are cases of murder – when you take somebody else’s life, it may not be at the victim’s time of choosing and they may not have reached a point, even if they’re sick, of deciding that they want their life to end… But at the other end of the spectrum, nobody wants to see a devoted husband or wife charged and going to court,” Hill asserted in another interview.

The Sunday Post reported that under the draft guidance, cases where the suspect was motivated only by compassion, where they tried to take their own life at the same time, and where they fully cooperated with the police would be less likely to result in prosecution.

If there is no evidence that the person wanted to die, Hill added, the case would be treated as a murder. In addition, if the victim were under 18 or did not have the mental capacity to decide to end their own life, those would be factors in favor of prosecution.

A consultation period on the proposed guidelines launched Jan. 14 and is due to conclude April 8.

“[The new guidelines] means that in some cases charges will be brought, but in others we will be able to avoid placing a loving husband or a loving wife in court to face criminal charges,” Hill said, in reference to a high-profile case from 2019.

In that case, a U.K. court acquitted an 80-year-old woman accused of killing her husband Dennis, 81, with a lethal dose of prescription medicine. Mavis Eccleston told jurors that her husband wanted to end his life after receiving a terminal diagnosis of bowel cancer. He had stopped treatment except for pain management medication, and he had reportedly talked about going to Switzerland to take advantage of legal assisted suicide in the country.

The couple decided to end their lives together with a lethal dose of medication, and reportedly wrote a note to their family explaining their decision.

The couple was found in their apartment by family members on Feb. 19, 2018, after they had taken the drugs. The couple was rushed to the hospital and given an antidote to the medication. Mavis survived; Dennis did not.

The woman’s family later called for the legalization of assisted suicide “so that dying people aren’t forced to suffer, make plans in secret or ask loved ones to risk prosecution by helping them,” the BBC reported.

And in 2017 an English chemist, Bipin Desai, was cleared after administering lethal drugs to his 85-year-old father, who had reportedly wanted to die. A judge at the time ruled that the chemist’s actions “were acts of pure compassion and mercy.”

The Catholic Church teaches that assisted suicide and euthanasia are a violation of the dignity of all human life, and therefore morally impermissible.

The Catholic Church supports, rather than assisted suicide or euthanasia, palliative care, which means seeking to accompany a patient towards the end of their lives with methods such as pain management. While firmly opposing euthanasia, Catholics do not believe life must always be prolonged with burdensome medical treatment.

Assisted suicide is illegal in England and Wales, and doctors who assist a suicide can be jailed up to 14 years under the Suicide Act 1961.

Parliament has consistently rejected efforts to change the law.

In 2015 the British parliament rejected a bill that would have legalized assisted suicide for patients with a terminal diagnosis, by a vote of 330 to 118.

A bill to legalize assisted suicide in England and Wales was not taken to a vote last year, after seven hours of debate and notable opposition in the House of Lords in October.

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