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article imageRight to Die Campaigner Enjoys Victory in British Court

By Chris Dade     Jul 30, 2009 in Health
A 45-year-old Multiple Sclerosis sufferer from Northern England won an important legal victory today when 5 Law Lords supported her argument that people must be made aware of any prosecution they will face for assisting the death abroad of a loved one.
Debbie Purdy, 46, was first diagnosed with primary progressive Multiple Sclerosis (MS) back in 1995. No longer able to walk and facing an increasing loss of strength in her upper body, Ms Purdy has admitted that sometime in the future she may opt to travel to a clinic in Switzerland to end her life.
Over 100 people from Britain have already made the journey to the Dignitas clinic which Ms Purdy has contemplated and, to date, no-one who has accompanied them on that journey has had to face charges in relation to assisting a death, upon their return to Britain. And, the BBC reports, neither has a specific reason ever been given as to why no prosecutions have taken place.
But Ms Purdy remained concerned that her husband, Cuban violinist Omar Puente, could still face criminal charges if one day he did indeed travel with her and support her knowing that she intended to take her own life. Indeed she argued that the lack of legal clarity was making it more likely that she would end her life sooner than she truly wanted to.
Lord Pannick QC represented Ms Purdy during the hearing at the House of Lords and told the presiding judges that if Mr Puente would only face a low risk of prosecution his client could leave it until the very last moment before traveling with her husband to the clinic in Switzerland. However, if Mr Puente was deemed to be at high risk of prosecution and therefore faced a possible prison sentence of 14 years if convicted of the charges brought against him, Ms Purdy would feel compelled to travel to the clinic earlier than she intended so that she could travel unassisted.
The High Court and Court of Appeal had already heard Ms Purdy's case and had ruled that what she was requesting was outside their jurisdiction and was a matter for Parliament, and not the courts, to decide as a change in the law would be necessary. At that point Ms Purdy decided to take the case to the highest court in the land.
Whilst noting that they too were in no position to declare that assisting a suicide abroad would not leave someone liable for prosecution in Britain, the 5 Law Lords did agree that the Director of Public Prosecutions, currently Keir Starmer QC, should issue some written guidelines as to what he believed should be the principal factors to consider when a decision on whether to prosecute or not was being made. Furthermore they acknowledged that under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights Ms Purdy possessed the right to end her life however she might choose.
When asked to summarize her feelings about the decision Ms Purdy, who was backed in her quest for clarification by Lord Falconer, a former Lord Chancellor, had this to say:I'm ecstatic - I feel like I've been given a reprieve. I want to live my life to the full but I don't want to suffer unnecessarily at the end of my life. The decision means that I can make an informed choice, with Omar, about whether he travels abroad with me to end my life because we will know exactly where we stand
The Law Lords' decision comes shortly after the Royal College of Nursing in Britain announced that they no longer had an official policy opposing assisted suicide and in future would remain neutral on the matter.
Amongst the British public there appears to be a general consensus that doctors should be allowed to help terminally ill patients end their lives at a time of their choosing. 74% expressed such a view in a recent poll.
There have been various reactions to today's ruling. Speaking on behalf of the campaign group Dignity in Dying, its Chief Executive Sarah Wootton said:This historic judgement ensures the law keeps up with changes in society and crucially, provides a more rational deterrent to abuse than a blanket ban which is never enforced. That must be better than the current legal muddle. The ruling is significant because it distinguishes between maliciously encouraging someone to commit suicide and compassionately supporting someone's decision to die
Meanwhile Simon Gillespie, Chief Executive of the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, pointed out that many sufferers from the condition could still expect to live meaningful lives:There are 100,000 people with MS across the UK and most will live about as long as any of us. The key to living well with MS is getting the right care and support from the point of diagnosis, including palliative care when it's needed
Finally the London Times reported on the comments from Keir Starmer, QC, the man now tasked with producing the guidelines the Law Lords have said should be issued:This is a difficult and sensitive subject and a complex area of the law. However, I fully accept the judgment of the House of Lords. The CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) has great sympathy for the personal circumstances of Ms Purdy and her family. In the absence of a legislative framework, cases of this sensitive nature present a significant challenge for prosecutors. I have therefore decided that, once our interim policy is published, we will undertake a public consultation exercise in order to take account of the full range of views on this subject. In the continuing absence of any legislative framework by then, I will publish my finalised policy in the spring of 2010
More about Britain, Multiple sclerosis, Cuba
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