Assisted suicide – House of Lords overturns Court of Appeal decision

ET staff writer
ET staff writer
01 September, 2009 2 min read

The House of Lords has overturned a Court of Appeal decision on assisted suicide, meaning that families and loved ones who help terminally ill relatives to commit suicide could escape prosecution.

A hotly-contested amendment to the Suicide Act, that would have allowed relatives to accompany patients overseas to suicide clinics, was rejected in the House of Lords earlier in July. This decision followed pressure from the Government, pro-life campaigners and the medical profession.

However, a loophole for assisted suicide has been created, partly as a result of successful lobbying by multiple sclerosis sufferer Debby Purdy, a spokesperson for the UK pro-euthanasia group Dignity in Dying.

Her initial plea to the High Court and Court of Appeal to give her husband legal protection, should he help her die, was rejected. However, in late July five law lords in the House of Lords overturned the Court of Appeal decision, and gave more discretionary power to the Director of Public Prosecutions in deciding whether cases should be brought against those who assist relatives to commit suicide abroad.

At the moment, helping someone commit suicide is punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment. Some 115 Britons have taken their lives at the Zurich-based ‘suicide resort’ of Dignitas, but no dependents have been prosecuted so far.

What it means

The media are hailing this ‘clarification’ as a victory for groups such as Dignity in Dying and Friends at the End.

But the ruling only gives clarity as to how the Director of Public Prosecutions would set out the circumstances in which he would prosecute. It does not mean that he may not yet prosecute those who assist terminally-ill patients to die abroad, nor does it mean that some relatives may not end up serving time in prison for doing so.

The latest judgement, and the circumstances surrounding it, highlight the power of emotive appeals from the pro-euthanasia lobby in gathering support from the public and Houses of Parliament.

A survey in London paper Metro showed that more than 70 per cent of readers would want a loved one to help them die, and that more than 80 per cent did not believe their relatives should be prosecuted for helping them do so.

Still more cases are coming to light of doctors and wealthy Britons flouting the law. As reported in the London Evening Standard, Michael Irwin, a former GP, sent £1500 to Swiss euthanasia clinic Dignitas to allow his terminally ill patient the right to die. This payment is illegal under UK law. Dr Irwin, who is being nicknamed Dr Death by the media, has begged to be arrested to make him a public martyr to the cause.

However, pro-life campaigners and Christian advocacy groups have applied equal lobbying power to resist attempts to allow relatives the right to travel to the Zurich clinic to support terminally ill patients in their suicide.

So far, reports suggest that a further 800 patients are on the waiting list.

ET staff writer
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