'Back-door euthanasia' fears over rules on assisted suicide
Published 26/02/2010 | 05:00
CONTROVERSIAL rules on prosecuting assisted suicide cases could lead to "back-door euthanasia" and must be fully debated, British MPs warned yesterday.
Disability campaigners, MPs and pro-life groups said that new guidance published by the UK's Director of Public Prosecutions would put pressure on vulnerable people to end their lives.
The revised policy follows a court case in which the DPP, Keir Starmer, was ordered to make clear who would and would not be prosecuted for helping someone commit suicide. If Mr Starmer had hoped that his attempt to clarify the law would settle the issue once and for all, he will have been greatly disappointed.
And although he said the new rules did not change the law or open the back door to euthanasia, critics leapt on factors for and against prosecution which they claimed supported their point of view.
Jayne Spink, director of policy and research at the MS Society, said: "While we welcome the guidance and the clarity it provides, we remain concerned that the law on assisted suicide continues to place a burden on individuals to seek end of life care and support themselves, rather than on society to provide it."
Richard Hawkes, chief executive of disability charity Scope, warned: "There is a real danger these changes will result in disabled people being pressured to end their lives."
Sarah Wootton, chief executive of Dignity in Dying, welcomed the guidelines as a "victory for common sense and compassion" but also committed the charity to press for a change in the law.
Yesterday, MPs demanded a full debate. Conservative MP Mark Pritchard said: "There is real concern that this house is not having a say. People are very concerned that this is a new back-door to euthanasia in the UK."
Mr Starmer insisted that each case would be judged on its merits and denied he had legalised assisted suicide. Under the revised policy, the emphasis is firmly placed on the motives and actions of the suspect rather than the victim's health.
Mr Starmer acted after a legal fight by Debbie Purdy, from Bradford, who has multiple sclerosis. In July, the House of Lords ruled she had the right to know under what circumstances her husband, Omar Puente, would be prosecuted if he helped her travel abroad to die.
She had argued that, without clarification, she would have had to travel earlier than she wanted while she was still fit enough to go alone. Ms Purdy said she was "overwhelmed and delighted" by the victory and that she and Mr Puente could now "get on with our lives".
She said she now knows that if her husband, a Cuban jazz violinist, is judged to have acted with compassion then a prosecution will not be pursued. "The important thing about the guidelines is they've been able to really clarify the difference between malicious encouragement and compassionate support for somebody's decision," she said.
"(They) give me my life back and, to know that, I can carry on living and don't have to worry about making a decision now."
The author Sir Terry Pratchett also welcomed the news as "the best we can get without a change in the law".
The 61-year-old, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease, believes people should have the right to choose when they die. (© Independent News Service)