Guidance on assisted suicide law ‘must be toughened’


New guidance aimed at clarifying the law on assisted suicide must make it clear that nearly everyone who helps a person to kill themselves will be prosecuted, according to leading disabled activists.

Not Dead Yet UK (NDY UK) was responding to a public consultation on interim guidance published by the director of public prosecutions (DPP) in September.

The DPP laid out interim guidelines for England, Wales and Northern Ireland after the Law Lords backed Debbie Purdy’s demand for the law to be clarified.

Purdy, who has multiple sclerosis, wanted to know in which circumstances her husband would be prosecuted if he helped her end her life at the Dignitas assisted suicide centre in Switzerland.

But NDY UK – whose members are disabled people campaigning against assisted suicide – says pro-euthanasia campaigners are trying to use Purdy’s case to “change the law by the back door” by “creating the impression that those who assist in a suicide will be immune from prosecution”.

NDY UK’s views have been endorsed by a swathe of influential disabled people’s organisations, including the United Kingdom’s Disabled People’s Council, RADAR and the National Centre for Independent Living.

Many disabled campaigners were angered by the interim guidance, which lists factors to be considered in deciding whether to prosecute.

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 NDY UK says in its response to the consultation that a presumption that anyone assisting in a suicide would be prosecuted would protect those who feel pressured to kill themselves and reassure them that society valued their lives.

It would also send a message to those working in palliative care and hospices that their work was valued and “put the brakes on a growing negative culture, which does not value the lives of all people equally”.

And it would ensure the policy does not discriminate against disabled people, sending out “a very clear message that all people should be protected under the law, in the same way, with the same respect”.

NDY UK says the DPP should only be able to decline to prosecute if the suspect only assisted after “protracted and persistent pressure from the victim”.

NDY UK says this is the “only potentially acceptable factor against prosecution”, although there should be evidence that the suspect resisted this pressure and sought help from professionals to try to avoid the suicide.

A final policy is expected in the spring.

15 December 2009


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