Campaigners say new guidance that clarifies the law on assisted suicide sends out “disturbing” signals about how disabled people are viewed.
The interim guidance for England, Wales and Northern Ireland lists the factors to be considered in deciding whether to prosecute someone for assisted suicide.
It says a prosecution is less likely if the victim had a terminal illness, a “severe and incurable physical disability” or a “severe degenerative physical condition”.
But Haqeeq Bostan, a spokesman for Not Dead Yet UK (NDYUK), an organisation of disabled people campaigning against legalising assisted suicide, said: “The policy seems to be sending out some very, very scary and disturbing signals about the value of disabled people’s lives.”
The Care Not Killing (CNK) alliance said it covered “a very wide swathe” of conditions and “most kinds of physical disability” and implied that disabled people’s lives were “less deserving of the law’s protection”.
Keir Starmer, the director of public prosecutions, stressed that the law remained unchanged and assisting a suicide was still a crime, with a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.
The interim guidance lays out 16 “public interest factors” in favour of prosecution and 13 against.
A prosecution is more likely if a suspect tried to persuade the victim to commit suicide, was not solely motivated by compassion, or was a paid care worker for the victim.
Prosecutors will also ask if the victim had a clear and settled wish to die, and if they lacked the capacity to reach an informed decision due to a mental health condition or learning difficulty.
Both CNK and NDYUK raised concerns that a prosecution would be less likely if the suspect was a partner, close friend or relative of the victim.
CNK said there was a “real danger” this would give a “green light” to those who might gain from the death.
Bostan said it was usually “people who you know and are close to you” who commit crimes such as rape, abuse and murder.
The interim guidelines, which came into force on 23 September, came after the Law Lords backed Debbie Purdy’s legal challenge over the government’s refusal to clarify the law.
Purdy, who has multiple sclerosis, wanted to know the circumstances in which her husband would be prosecuted if he helped her end her life at the Dignitas assisted suicide centre in Switzerland.
A public consultation on the guidance will be followed by a final policy next spring.
To take part in the consultation, visit www.cps.gov.uk/consultations/
23 September 2009