Assisted Suicide Law
The issue of Assisted Suicide (also known as Euthanasia) has been a contentious ethical issue for many years now with very divided opinions on policies involved. There has recently been much media attention on the subject due to the case regarding Debbie Purdy, a sufferer of Multiple Sclerosis. She has been in court, and now the House of Lords, to get clarification as to whether her husband would be prosecuted for helping her to go abroad to a clinic that will help her die.
The 1961 Suicide Act ‘makes it an offence to aid, abet, counsel or procure a suicide or a suicide attempt in England and Wales.' Those found guilty of this could face a jail term of up to 14 years. More than 100 UK citizens have travelled to Dignitas in Switzerland where it is legal for doctors and nurses to assist terminally ill, or those with severe physical and mental illnesses to die. Although many of these people from the UK will have needed help to travel to the clinic, as yet no relatives have been prosecuted.
There has been no change in the law, but new guidelines aim to clarify the factors that might influence whether anyone would face prosecution. The report included 16 factors that could lead to a prosecution. Mr Starmer, the director of public prosecutions, has made it very clear that these are not a guarantee either way and each individual situation will still need to be investigated. Some of the factors include whether there is a financial motive, whether there was pressue on the person to choose suicide or whether they were suffering from mental illness. Mr Starmer is clear to point out that this has not changed the law and euthanasia is still illegal in the UK, these guidelines are merely meant for those helping friends or relatives travelling abroad to clinics to get assistance in suicide.
However, some who are against assisted suicide are worried that this will make a difference to the number who want assisted suicide. Dr Peter Saunders from ‘Care not Killing’ is worried that people may see the clarifications as freedom to give assistence in dying and that prosecutions could be less likely.
Possible Law Changes
There have several attempts recently to legalise assisted suicide but as of yet all these bills have failed to pass through. In 2006, the bill was defeated in the House of Lords 148 votes to 100. It is likely that further attempts will be made in the future.
The Swiss Clinic has the motto “Live with dignity, die with dignity” taking advantage of the swiss law on assisted suicide to take the stance that any assisted suicide for compassionate reasons is legal. The clinic staff are all volunteers to ensure there is no financial motivation and the patients undergo in depth questioning into their motivation in order that it falls within the legal remits. Once the papers are signed the patient goes to one of the Dignitas flats in Zurich where they are given an anti-sickness injection and then the patient themselves take a lethal dose of Barbiturate. This is recorded on camera to prove the staff did not administer the drug. There has been criticism of the clinic that it accepts those who are not actually terminally ill and offers a dangerous solution to mentally ill people suffering hopelessness and despair. Other criticisms of the clinic are it’s high charges to patients of nearly £8,000 for the full procedure and despite being a non-profit organisation they have refused to make their finances public. Dignitas is not the only organisation that offers assisted suicide and many others have come under similar allegations.
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