Disabled campaigners have given a mixed response to new official guidance on prosecuting cases of assisted suicide.
Some disabled people’s organisations were relieved that the director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, had removed “disturbing” elements from the interim guidance he issued last September.
But other campaigners said that publishing any guidance sent a signal that assisted suicide could be acceptable in certain circumstances.
The guidance lists the factors to be considered by the Crown Prosecution Service in deciding whether to charge someone with assisted suicide.
The interim guidance had included 13 factors that would make a prosecution less likely, including whether the victim had a terminal illness, a “severe and incurable physical disability” or a “severe degenerative physical condition”.
It also said a prosecution would be less likely if the suspect was a partner, close friend or relative of the victim.
These two factors have now been removed from the final guidance – following a consultation that produced nearly 5,000 responses – which now lists just six factors that make a prosecution less likely.
These include whether the victim had reached a “voluntary, clear, settled and informed decision” to commit suicide; and whether the suspect was “wholly motivated by compassion”.
Starmer said: “The policy is now more focused on the motivation of the suspect rather than the characteristics of the victim.
“The policy does not change the law on assisted suicide. It does not open the door for euthanasia. It does not override the will of Parliament.
“What it does is to provide a clear framework for prosecutors to decide which cases should proceed to court and which should not.”
Roger Symes, a spokesman for Not Dead Yet UK (NDYUK), which campaigns against legalising assisted suicide, said Starmer appeared to have listened to disabled people’s concerns about the factors concerning disabled victims and relatives.
He said he believed the new guidance would make disabled people safer and made it clear that assisted suicide was still illegal.
But NDYUK was still concerned at the guidance’s “dangerous” suggestion that those motivated by “compassion” would not be prosecuted.
Before the new guidelines were published, Baroness [Jane] Campbell, convenor of NDYUK, warned that they “must not become a check list for those seeking to break the law, even if they believe they are acting with the best of motives”.
Caroline Ellis, joint deputy chief executive of RADAR, said the final guidance was a “breakthrough” because it no longer suggested that disabled people’s lives were less worthy of protection. She said her initial reaction was that disabled people would be safer as a result of the new guidelines.
The Care Not Killing Alliance, whose members include RADAR, said the final guidelines “greatly reduce the risk of undermining existing law” and “stress that the law has not changed, that no-one has immunity from prosecution, and that a prosecution will normally follow unless there are clear and compelling public interest factors to the contrary”.
But it added its voice to concerns about how to determine whether a suspect’s motives were “compassionate”.
Deborah Sowerby, coordinator of a new Facebook campaign, the Campaign for Assisted Living, said she believed publishing any such guidance “devalues life” and implies that assisted suicide can be somehow permissible.
The disability charity Scope agreed, and said it too was “not comfortable with the issuing of guidelines in the first place”.
Richard Hawkes, its chief executive, said it did “not support any weakening of the protection offered under the law on assisted suicide, which is exactly what these new guidelines do”.
He said: “Many disabled people are frightened by the consequences of these new guidelines and with good reason. There is a real danger these changes will result in disabled people being pressured to end their lives.”
RADAR and NDYUK also said that monitoring the effects of the new guidelines would be crucial and called on the government to publish annual statistics on how many cases are referred to prosecutors and how many lead to criminal charges.
The Crown Prosecution Service said it had set up a new national unit to deal with all cases of assisted suicide, although a spokeswoman could not yet confirm whether they would publish annual figures.
25 February 2010