The British government has ignored and failed to prosecute people in dozens of assisted suicide cases after it changed its rules on prosecution following the British House of Lords siding with Debbie Purdy in her high-profile case.
The House of Lords said Purdy can avoid the national law, which has rarely been enforced, making it so anyone assisting in a suicide could receive as much as 14 years in prison for doing so. British law covers a person who “aids, abets, counsels or procures” the suicide of another person — which would theoretically include anyone who takes someone to another country for an assisted suicide or helps people kill themselves in England.
However, The London Telegraph newspaper reports 44 people have been killed in assisted suicides since the Purdy case and the rules change, and none of the people involved in killing the U.K. citizens have been prosecuted. The official figures from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) are the first since the court ruled and the actual number of cases may be higher if police dropped the case or failed to report it to CPS.
Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions who upset pro-life advocates by changing the prosecution rules, told the newspaper he thinks the number of assisted suicide cases are on the rise now that they are essentially decriminalized.
“There have been more cases – not a huge explosion but more than happened before,” he said. “I think one of the reasons that there have been more cases since the assisted suicide guidance came out is that people feel more confident to come forward and say what they’ve done because they’ve got a degree of clarity about what might happen to them.”
The newspaper indicates the 44 cases are a combination of people dying in Britain and abroad as the number of people killed at Dignitas suicide clinics in Switzerland rose from 15 in 2003 to 27 in 2009 and another four people died thanks to Ex-International, which also facilitates suicide tourism.
The British pro-life group SPUC said it is not surprised by the numbers, saying, “SPUC warned when guidelines were published that it could lead to the de facto decriminalization of assisted suicide.”
But Purdy claimed the ruling would not lead to an increase in suicide tourism or people hoping to kill loved ones, saying, “I don’t think there is going to be a rush to get Auntie May to the knacker’s yard because they want to inherit her house.”
Paul Tully, the general secretary of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children condemned the ruling at the time.
“The judgment reflects the context of a relative giving someone travel assistance to go to Switzerland or other place where assistance to commit suicide might be regarded as legal. However, the judges don’t make clear, for example, whether they think those who encourage a suicide, rather than just assist the process, should be prosecuted,’ he said.
“It is unclear what guidance is expected of the DPP on such points,” Tully added. “Most people with long-term disabilities, degenerative diseases or terminal illness do not seek to commit suicide, yet their lives could be undermined by this judgment. They may feel under pressure to kill themselves because they think they are a burden on others.”
Purdy, who is 46 and has multiple sclerosis, claimed that the law against assisted suicide infringes on her Article 8 right to private and family life under the European Convention on Human Rights.