Britain took a cautious but distinct step toward sanctioning assisted suicide today when the country's top prosecutor outlined rules under which people helping others to die might escape punishment.
Responding to growing calls for legal clarity on an emotive issue that is becoming increasingly at issue in aging societies, the director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, set out conditions under which it might be acceptable for relatives to help sick loved ones to their death.
Groups in favor of legalizing assisted suicide immediately hailed the new guidelines as a sensible blueprint that would differentiate between those who act with compassion to help someone die when they want, and those who maliciously encourage someone to kill themselves. But sanctity-of-life advocates warned it could prove the thin end of the wedge.
Like most other European countries, Britain takes a dim view of anyone helping people commit suicide, regardless of circumstances. Technically, it is a crime punishable by up to 14 years in prison.
Ruling out minors, profit motive
But Mr. Starmer's guidance outlines a series of conditions under which prosecution will now be less likely. These include cases where the victim had a terminal illness, had a "clear, settled and informed wish" to die, and in which the helper was a spouse or close relative.
Prosecutions will be more likely, on the other hand, if the victim was a minor, or the helper was not motivated by compassion and stood to profit financially from the death.
"This policy does not in any way permit euthanasia," Starmer said. "The policy makes a distinction between, on the one hand, relatives, close family members, and friends who, as a one-off and on a compassionate basis, may assist in a suicide, and, on the other hand, those that, on an ongoing basis, provide either a service or a business."
Parents help son commit suicide
The issue has flared up as a result of three recent cases.
The parents of Daniel James, a young British rugby player who was paralyzed in a training session two years ago, helped their son commit suicide by taking him to a Swiss clinic that specializes in euthanasia.
Mr. James's parents were investigated, but never prosecuted, for his death.
Media coverage of the events surrounding James's death helped spark a broader debate in the UK on the ethics of assisted-suicide, and on current law.
Were their actions legally permissible? One person desperate to find out was Debbie Purdy, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and wants to know whether her husband will be prosecuted if they decide to make the journey to Switzerland.
Ms. Purdy took her challenge all the way to the House of Lords this summer and they ordered Starmer to produce a definitive ruling.
"I am relieved that common sense has won the day," Purdy said today in a statement "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. 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."
In July, one of Britain's best-known opera conductors, Sir Edward Downes, flew to Switzerland to commit suicide – also with the help of Dignitas – along with his ill wife. Friends said he was not terminally ill himself.
Encouraged to act in bad faith?
The lobbying group Care Not Killing, which brings together disability, human rights, and faith-based groups, expressed multiple concerns about the new prosecution guidelines.
In particular, it worries that family members might be encouraged to act in bad faith.
"There must be a real danger that this will be seen as giving the green light to assistance from close relatives or friends, who in many cases might be those who would stand personally to gain from the death of the deceased," the group said.
Last month, senior police officer Barbara Wilding said that loopholes in the law governing assisted suicide could be exploited by families wishing to get rid of burdensome elderly relatives.
The big question is whether the new guidelines will result in more assisted suicides. Starmer insisted that it would not result in a chain of Dignitas-style suicide clinics opening up in Britain.
As to whether his approach would lead to more terminally ill people taking their own lives, he said: "Only time will tell. It may do, it may not do."
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