Thursday, October 2, 2008

Debbie Purdy - Assisted Suicide UK law review

Dignity in Dying campaigner Debbie Purdy has progressive multiple sclerosis. She may at some stage wish to receive assisted suicide and wants her husband Omar to be immune from prosecution in the UK should he accompany her to Dignitas, the Swiss assisted suicide clinic. Her campaign bears striking similarities to that of the late Diane Pretty. Dignity in Dying is the leading euthanasia lobby group in the UK.

The Care Not Killing Alliance in the UK stated that they:
welcome a full airing of the arguments, but they warned that legalising assisted suicide would put vulnerable people at risk and make them susceptible to exploitation and abuse - a view upheld by the House of Lords vote on the Joffe Bill in 2006.

Care Not Killing's campaign director Dr Peter Saunders stated his concerns in this manner:
We welcome this opportunity to revisit the arguments and are confident that the court will find that, in order to protect vulnerable people from exploitation, the current law should be upheld.

Assisting in another's suicide is a criminal offence which carries a sentence of up to 14 years imprisonment. The law is very clear on this matter and should not be changed. Changing it to allow assisted suicide would place vulnerable people – the sick, elderly, depressed and disabled – under pressure, whether real or imagined, to request early death. Vulnerable people often feel that they constitute a financial or emotional burden to others and the so-called 'right to die' can so easily become the duty to die. Once a person has been 'helped to die' it is often very difficult to know whether there has been subtle coercion involved from someone who has an interest in a person's death.

Requests like this are thankfully extremely rare and hard cases make bad law. We must not legislate for exceptions and the House of Lords for this reason in 2006 quite rightly rejected Lord Joffe's assisted dying bill. There are over 70,000 people in Britain with multiple sclerosis at present and only a very small number ever request assisted suicide. These requests are virtually never persistent if patients' physical, emotional and spiritual needs are properly addressed. Our key priority must therefore be to make the very best palliative care more widely accessible and to get rid of the postcode lottery of care that currently exists in Britain.

We are concerned about Mrs Purdy's expressed fear of choking to death or experiencing excruciating pain because with good palliative care these fears are quite groundless with multiple sclerosis. The public is being misled over this. There have been great advances in the management of multiple sclerosis which have benefited patients and now mean that many with the disease live an almost normal lifespan. Mrs Purdy has had MS for 13 years already and may have many more years still to live. It is also not at all clear, given the type of illness she has, that she would ever need assistance to end her life, should she be determined to do so. This case has to be seen therefore in the wider context of an ongoing campaign by Dignity in Dying, formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, to change the law.

The key issue here remains whether the law should be changed for the very small number of people who press for assisted suicide. Our view is that in order to protect others from exploitation it should not be.

Link to the comments by the Care Not Killing Alliance:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Purdy case has superficial overlaps with the Pretty case, inasmuch as the women's situations are tragically similar.

However, the Purdy case was not aimed at a proleptic immunity for Mrs Purdy's husband. This is in stark contrast with Pretty. Mrs Pretty sought an assurance that no prosecution would be brought against her husband if he helped her to commit suicide, and to demonstrate that the Suicide Act's blanket prohibition of assisted-suicide was unlawful.

Mrs Purdy simply wanted clarification on the practice for bringing a prosecution under the Suicide Act. Over 100 people have travelled from the UK to the Dignitas clinic. To date, none of these has resulted in a prosecution. The Director of Public Prosecutions has a discretion under the Suicide Act, so need not prosecute someone, even if he or she has assisted a suicide.

Thus, Mrs Purdy's case is somewhat misrepresented in this posting on the blog. She did not seek to decriminalise assisted suicide. She simply sought clarification concerning prosecuting practice when the crime is committed.

It therefore would not raise equivalent concerns regarding the safety of vulnerable groups that surrounded the Pretty litigation.