British House of Lords: Debbie Purdy Can Escape Law on Assisted Suicide Tourism

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jul 31, 2009   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

British House of Lords: Debbie Purdy Can Escape Law on Assisted Suicide Tourism

by Steven Ertelt Editor
July 31
, 2009

London, England ( — The British House of Lords on Thursday issued a ruling allowing Debbie Purdy, a Briton who wants her husband not to go to prison for taking her to a Swiss euthanasia center, to escape a national law. The law allows for the prosecution of family members who talked loved ones out of the country for an assisted suicide.

Under current English law, which has rarely been enforced, 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.

The High Court and the Court of Appeal had previously ruled that the Director of Public Prosecutions is not required to issue a public prosecuting policy on suicide tourism.

Without such a public policy, Purdy can’t know if her husband will face legal judgment after he takes her for an assisted suicide.

The House of Lords ruling requires the DPP to issue guidance on when he will or will not prosecute those who criminally assist suicide. The judgment directs that the new policy should cover "a case such as that which Mrs Purdy’s case exemplifies."

Purdy told BBC Radio 4’s Today that she is pleased with the ruling.

"’The only way to determine what the policy should be is to discuss it so that we can make sure that all safeguards are considered and thought about and we get a policy which is appropriate for the 21st century," she said.

Purdy claimed the ruling would not lead to an increase in suicide tourism or people hoping to kill loved ones, perhaps for their inheritance.

"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,"she said.

Paul Tully, the general secretary of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, a pro-life group, condemned the ruling.

"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," Tully added.

All five law Lords agreed to Purdy’s demand that the DPP should publish a policy setting out the factors that will be taken into account when deciding whether to prosecute people for assisting suicide.

SPUC intervened in the case. It intends to make a representation to the DPP on this policy.

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.

Purdy’s legal action is supported by the pro-euthanasia group Dignity in Dying and she is a member of Dignitas, the Swiss organization that runs the controversial death clinics that help kill people.

In his February ruling, Lord Judge, the Lord Chief Justice, indicated courts would throw out any such charges against family members.

He said there were “broad circumstances” under which courts would not uphold the nation’s law against assisted suicide.

In October, the British High Court ruled against Purdy and her attorneys appealed the decision.

Combined with the recent statements from the Director of Public Prosecutions, it appears Britons have free reign to take their loved ones to Switzerland to kill themselves without facing any prosecution.

Pro-life advocates worry the ruling open the door for some to prey on the disabled, elderly or terminally ill by encouraging them to end their lives in the terrible conditions at the Dignitas euthanasia center in Zurich.

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