Assisted suicide: Having the right to die

Posted by Gareth Hargreaves

Mother and son are arrested on suspicion of encouraging or assisting a suicide, but what have they actually done wrong?

Assisted suicideWhat is the law on assisted suicide? What are the implications for your family if you need help to end your life?

These are questions that have been brought into sharp relief this weekend with the news that a 65 year-old woman from West Sussex and her 25 year-old son have been arrested on suspicion of encouraging or assisting a suicide. The arrests follow concerns that the pair were preparing to take a 75 year-old man (husband and father to the two people charged) to Switzerland where he planned to end his life.

The Coroners and Justice Act of 2009 states it is an offence to encourage or assist suicide. However, in 2010 the director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, released guidance in the wake of the Debbie Purdy case, that indicated anyone acting with compassion to help end the life of someone who had chosen to die would be unlikely to face criminal charges.

If you use the popular press as a barometer of public opinion, the issue of assisted suicide is polarised. It seems a very black and white for and against; only there is large grey block - the people directly affected by the inconsistency in the law. There has been no serious debate or consultation on what the rules are around assisted dying. Successive governments have favoured platitudes and meaningless soundbites rather than helping those who need it most. Recently, the Church of England responded to Labour peer Lord Falconer's private members bill to legitimise assisted suicide calling it "morally unacceptable". 

Starmer's guidance illustrates unwillingness at the highest levels to set out a robust assisted dying law. How can the director of Public Prosecutions publish instruction on so serious an issue that states a person is 'unlikely' to be prosecuted? Legally, the advice holds as much water as sieve.

In 2011, the author Terry Pratchett risked up to 14 years in prison for being present at an assisted suicide at the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland as he recorded a documentary comparing UK attitudes with other European states. Pratchett, who has early onset Alzheimer's, said, “I am a firm believer in assisted death. I believe everybody possessed of a debilitating and incurable disease should be allowed to pick the hour of their death. And I wanted to know more about Dignitas in case I ever wanted to go there myself.”

Choosing to Die received 1,219 complaints when it was aired BBC Two in 2011. The film explored Pratchett's own struggles with attitudes surrounding end of life and follows millionaire Peter Smedley's final months before travelling and being helped to die at Dignitas. The Documentary won the 2012 Grierson British Documentary Awards, but while it was praised for bringing the issue back into the spotlight the BBC was criticised as a 'cheerleader for legalising assisted suicide'.

Having provoked a media storm, Pratchett’s film could not though advance the issue in Westminster, where assisted suicide is seen as politically too dangerous. Pro-life campaigners argue that legitimising assisted suicide is wrong because of the possibility the guidance would be abused putting vulnerable people at risk. The fear is that the natural progression from assisted suicide would be the normalisation of euthanasia. Until there is a proper debate, these concerns will remain.

So where are we now, in July, the family of the late Tony Nicklinson lost their right-to-die challenge. The Court of Appeal rejected their argument that Nicklinson had the right to ask a doctor to end his life.

The 51 year-old from Wiltshire, who suffered a stroke in 2005, had campaigned for the right to end his life in a dignified way but could find no way without exposing his family and doctors to the prosecution. The family continued the fight after his death and brought the case in a bid to clarify the legal position for others in similar situations.

Far from protecting Tony Nicklinson, the law condemned him to a slow death. However, ultimately, he chose for death for himself, but only as a result of refusing treatment for pneumonia and refusing food. He left this life with a humourous final post to his Twitter followers, "Goodbye world I had some fun."

The law says everyone has a right to life, surely it follows that everyone has the right to choose their own death.

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