UK Doctor Ready to Challenge New Guidelines Allowing Some Assisted Suicides

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Sep 22, 2009   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

UK Doctor Ready to Challenge New Guidelines Allowing Some Assisted Suicides

by Steven Ertelt Editor
September 22
, 2009

London, England ( — A doctor in England is ready to become the first to challenge the new guidelines issued by a top British prosecutor that essentially allow assisted suicide. Keir Starmer QC, the director of public prosecutions, has gone beyond a court ruling and decriminalized some assisted suicides.

The British Parliament has refused to approve a bill that would directly legalized assisted suicide in the UK, but a prosecutor has opened up the country to suicide on his own.

The prosecutor’s guidelines follow a decision by the House of Lords allowing Debbie Purdy the right to know if her husband would be prosecuted if he took her to Switzerland to kill herself.

Now, former GP Dr. Michael Irwin said he “wanted his day in court” to challenge the new guidelines — especially to become the first “martyr” toward the cause of full legalization of assisted suicide. He wants to know if Starmer will make good on his guidelines.

According to This is London, he admits helping to take terminally ill Raymond Cutkelvin to a suicide clinic in Switzerland and paying for his death. Irwin and Cutkelvin’s partner, Alan Cutkelvin-Rees were questioned by local police on their return and are out on bail.

Theirs could be the first case decided under the new guidelines as the £1,500 he spent to fund the trip for the suicide would qualify under the "encouragement" section of the guidelines.

Starmer says only someone who is a “ringleader” or “organizer” of the death of a person who has been “vulnerable to manipulation” can be prosecuted.

In other words, it is no longer illegal to assist in a suicide but it would be unlawful to encourage one.

"This was oh, so predictable," American bioethicist Wesley J. Smith responds. "Once the UK head prosecutor decriminalized relatives assisting the suicides of their suffering loved ones, you knew the activists would sense the weakness of resolve and demand more."

Smith predicted Irwin won’t get his case because he doesn’t think Starmer will follow through on prosecuting him.

"Dr. Irwin may be disappointed. The prosecutor’s actions showed he has no stomach to stop assisted suicides of the ill and disabled. So, don’t expect a vigorous prosecution of Irwin," he said. "Or, if there is a weak prosecution, what are the chances a jury will convict when they know that similar cases will not be prosecuted when the assister was a family member or friend?"

"Moreover, in this case, it was the partner of the deceased who conspired with Irwin, so how prosecute Irwin and not him?" Smith continued.

"If I am right, Irwin will next act more blatantly, say, by doing it at home instead of in Switzerland where the act is legal and thus, muddies the water. And we will see the beginning of a Kevorkian spectacle, leading to the prosecutor caving further and basically agreeing not to enforce the law," he speculates.

"Recall, Kevorkian was given a green light for assisted suicide by the Oakland County public prosecutor. It was only when Kevorkian videoed himself actively euthanizing Thomas Youk–and then ran breathlessly to 60 Minutes for it to be shown on national television–that he took the step too far," he said.

Since 1961 assisting a suicide has been punishable by up to 14 years’ imprisonment in England. The new guidelines will apply to assisted suicides in Britain and overseas, the London Times reported, and the Crown Prosecution Service said there would be no new legislation.

The publication of the draft prosecuting policy on assisted suicide, which Starmer will release Wednesday, will undermine the right to life of disabled people, the British pro-life group SPUC responded.

Paul Tully, SPUC general secretary, commented: "Earlier this year parliament voted against changing the law even to permit assistance in traveling abroad to commit suicide. Now the legal authorities are forcing a weakening of the law against helping people to kill themselves. There is a democratic deficit in their action."

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