UK eases assisted suicide fears

2009-09-23 18:34

London - People who help their relatives commit suicide are unlikely to be prosecuted in Britain provided they were motivated by compassion and the victim had a strong desire to die, officials said on Wednesday.

Britain's director of public prosecutions (DPP), Keir Starmer, unveiled new guidelines on how assisted suicide is prosecuted here, after campaign groups demanded clarification of the law.

However, he stressed that assisted suicide remains illegal and there were "no guarantees against prosecution".

Starmer launched the guidelines after Britain's highest legal authority, the Law Lords, ruled that people considering taking their lives were entitled to a clarification of the law.

It followed an appeal by Debbie Purdy, a woman suffering from multiple sclerosis, who wanted to know what would happen to her husband, Cuban violinist Omar Puente, if he helped her travel abroad to end her life.

"Assisting suicide has been a criminal offence for nearly 50 years and my interim policy does nothing to change that," Starmer said.

"There are also no guarantees against prosecution and it is my job to ensure that the most vulnerable people are protected, while at the same time giving enough information to those people, like Ms Purdy, who want to be able to make informed decisions about what actions they may choose to take."

The guidelines say prosecution is not in the public interest where the victim had a "clear, settled and informed wish to commit suicide", had a terminal illness or severe and incurable physical disability, and where they had asked for help on their own initiative.

'Minor' assistance

The person helping them die must be "wholly motivated by compassion", be a relative or close friend, and their input to the act of suicide must be only "minor assistance or influence".

By contrast, prosecutions are more likely if the victim was under the age of 18, if their decision-making capacity was impaired and if they were not clear about wanting to end their life and were pressured into it.

Purdy said she was "relieved that common sense has won the day".

"I, and many others like me, want to be able to make informed decisions about the time and manner of our deaths should our suffering become unbearable," she said in a statement.

"We want to know whether someone we love will be prosecuted for helping us to die, even if that assistance is simply being with us at the end.

"Today, and thanks to the Law Lords and the DPP, we can make these decisions in the knowledge of what the likely consequences will be."

A spokesperson for Prime Minister Gordon Brown's office said it would examine the guidance, but noted Starmer's assurance that each individual case would be looked at separately.

The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cardiff, Peter Smith, said the Catholic bishops of England and Wales would also be studying the guidance but were reassured that assisted suicide remained illegal.

"I would not be seeking to argue that every criminal case should be prosecuted - there can indeed be a particular combination of circumstances which will justify in a specific case a decision not to prosecute in the public interest," Smith said.

"But such decisions can only be made on a case-by-case basis, and what is imperative is that any general guidance does not obscure the bright line of the law, which must remain clear and evident to all."

The guidelines come into force immediately, but will be replaced by a permanent policy following a 12-week consultation.

Under the 1961 Suicide Act in England and Wales, aiding and abetting suicide is a criminal offence punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

More than 100 Britons, most terminally ill, have travelled to Switzerland to die at the Dignitas assisted suicide clinic, but no one who has accompanied them has ever been prosecuted upon return to Britain.