Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Prosecution guidelines in the UK may open the door to assisted suicide.

Last July, Britain’s highest court told the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) that he must publish a set of guidelines concerning the application of the assisted suicide law in the UK. The decision by the Law Lords was in response to a challenge by Debbie Purdy, a woman who has multiple sclerosis (MS) who has stated that if she decides to go to Switzerland to die at an assisted suicide clinic that she wanted to have assurances that her husband would be free from prosecution for accompanying her.

The new guidelines were published today by Keir Starmer, the DPP. They will likely make it easier for people who are terminally ill or who have chronic or degenerative disabilities to die by assisted suicide without their family members or others being prosecuted under the Assisted Suicide Act. http://www.cps.gov.uk/news/press_releases/144_09/

Starmer stated that the assisted suicide law has not changed. To aid, abet, procure or counsel suicide remains an offense that is punishable by up to 14 years (no minimum sentence) and that there are no guarantees that someone will not be prosecuted.

The interim policy outlined the following factors that would effect prosecution. They were as follows:
The public interest factors in favour of prosecution identified in the interim policy include that:
* The victim was under 18 years of age;
* The victim’s capacity to reach an informed decision was adversely affected by a recognised mental illness or learning difficulty;
* The victim did not have a clear, settled and informed wish to commit suicide; for example, the victim’s history suggests that his or her wish to commit suicide was temporary or subject to change;
* The victim did not indicate unequivocally to the suspect that he or she wished to commit suicide;
* The victim did not ask personally on his or her own initiative for the assistance of the suspect;
* The victim did not have a terminal illness; or a severe and incurable physical disability; or a severe degenerative physical condition from which there was no possibility of recovery;
* The suspect was not wholly motivated by compassion; for example, the suspect was motivated by the prospect that they or a person closely connected to them stood to gain in some way from the death of the victim;
* The suspect persuaded, pressured or maliciously encouraged the victim to commit suicide, or exercised improper influence in the victim's decision to do so; and did not take reasonable steps to ensure that any other person did not do so.

The public interest factors against a prosecution include that:
* The victim had a clear, settled and informed wish to commit suicide;
* The victim indicated unequivocally to the suspect that he or she wished to commit suicide;
* The victim asked personally on his or her own initiative for the assistance of the suspect;
* The victim had a terminal illness or a severe and incurable physical disability or a severe degenerative physical condition from which there was no possibility of recovery;
* The suspect was wholly motivated by compassion;
* The suspect was the spouse, partner or a close relative or a close personal friend of the victim, within the context of a long-term and supportive relationship;
* The actions of the suspect, although sufficient to come within the definition of the offence, were of only minor assistance or influence, or the assistance which the suspect provided was as a consequence of their usual lawful employment.

The Care Not Killing Alliance reacted to the interim guidelines by stating: http://www.carenotkilling.org.uk/?show=845
“We are pleased to see that the draft guidelines emphasise that assisting suicide will remain illegal and that any person who gives such assistance, whatever the circumstances, will remain liable to prosecution. We are also pleased to see a recognition of the potential for external coercion in cases of assisted suicide and of the need to ensure that those so assisted are not suffering from mental illness or incapacity and of the need to discourage internet promotion of assisted suicides.”

“On the other hand, there are some features of the draft guidelines that are disturbing. In particular, it is envisaged that prosecutions for assisted suicide will be less likely where the deceased was terminally ill or suffering from a severe an incurable physical disability or a severe degenerative physical condition from which there is no possibility of recovery. Not only does this classification cover a very wide swathe of medical conditions, including such illnesses as chronic heart disease and most kinds of physical disability, but it also implies that the lives of a whole group of people - those who are seriously ill or disabled – are less deserving of the law’s protection than are others.”

“We are concerned also that prosecution of spouses, partners, or close friends or family members is envisaged as less likely than of others who might assist a suicide. There must be a real danger that this will be seen as giving the green light to assistance from close relatives or friends, who in many cases might be those who would stand personally to gain from the death of the deceased.”

The Euthanasia Prevention Coalition is particularly concerned about the devaluation of people with disabilities that is evident in the guidelines. A person, such as Alison Davis, the leader of the group No Less Human in the UK would qualify for assisted suicide under these guidelines.

When an able-bodied person becomes significant disabled from an accident or a medical condition they will often be upset by their new physical or cognitive condition. These people need the law to protect them to provide time to learn how to live with their new reality. They need to be protected and not treated with inequality or threatened by the possibility of dying by assisted suicide when they are experiencing a difficult time of life.

We are also concerned about this concept of a person being “wholly motivated by compassion.” It is nearly impossible to determine the motivation outside of the context of their actions. We reject the concept of a “compassionate homicide” and we reject the concept that a person that assists the suicide of another person is acting in a compassionate manner.

The Euthanasia Prevention Coalition is convinced that the temporary guidelines by the DPP have created a new class of inequality within the application of the assisted suicide law in the UK. If these guidelines are not amended in order to equally protect every citizen under the law, then these guidelines are likely to be struck down by the Courts thus further eroding the assisted suicide law in the UK.

These guidelines are simply unacceptable and they directly threaten the lives of people with disabilities and other vulnerable people in the UK.

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