The Right to Die: Sense and Sensibility

Britain’s Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, has revealed himself today to be a humane and sensible man and, despite his cautious wording and assurances that the law in England and Wales against assisted suicide has not changed,  he has in effect advanced civil liberties when it comes to the right to die. He has issued new guidelines detailing when the authorities will prosecute a spouse, relative or friend who assists a terminally ill or incurably sick person to travel overseas to undergo assisted suicide. Prosecution is unlikely as long as people do not maliciously encourage the act of suicide and assist only a “clear, settled and informed wish” to end life, the DPP says.

Today’s guidelines were issued after the Law Lords backed in July the call by Debbie Purdy, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, for a policy statement on whether people who help someone commit suicide should be prosecuted. Purdy wanted a clear policy statement on whether her husband would be prosecuted for helping her to travel to Switzerland to go through assisted suicide at a Dignitas clinic there.

More than 100 Britons, including my mother, Barbara Dettmer, have ended their lives at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, but, until now, friends or relatives who have accompanied them have not known if they will face prosecution — although no prosecutions have as yet been mounted.

Barbara Dettmer

A Few Years Before

My mother went through assisted suicide three years ago after struggling for three decades very bravely with crucifying pain. Her multiple, progressive and incurable diseases were not helped by palliative care or drug therapies and her quality of life had been reduced to a shambling and appalling existence. My mother was not terminal – but she chose to be, and she made it clear that she believed she had the right to die when she chose to exercise it. My family and I supported her right to die because she asked us to and, although we all arrived at our support through different intellectual routes, none of us had any doubts about backing her when she requested that backing. Her courage was astonishing.

The DPP’s has certainly clarified what factors will be taken into account when the authorities consider whether to prosecute or not. The emphasis and focus of the guidelines are spot-on: the DPP wants to protect the vulnerable from manipulation and coercion and trickery.

Factors against prosecution include: there was a clear, settled and informed wish to commit suicide and that the person who went through the suicide indicated unequivocally that they wished to commit suicide. The person who went through the suicide personally asked for help and they were terminally ill or suffered from a severe and incurable disability and degenerative condition.

While welcoming the DPP’s guidelines I remain troubled that the law itself  hasn’t been changed. What is bizarre is that there are now guidelines that in spirit and humanity pull in one direction while the the law against assisted suicide pulls in another. That is a recipe for trouble down the road and there remains a lack of certainty. The guidelines could be changed later or an appeal could be mounted against the guidelines in the courts to have them struck down because they don’t enforce the law in place. It is a good holding position but Parliament has got to have the courage and humanity the DPP has shown and alter the law. The DPP has had to almost usurp Parliament because the parliamentarians have not done their jobs and they have failed to respond to public opinion and common sense.