LONDON — The debate over assisted suicide in Britain has reached fever pitch in recent weeks with the publication of the Crown Prosecution Service’s policy regarding cases of assisted suicide.
This followed two high-profile cases and the statement by fantasy genre author Sir Terry Pratchett that he would offer himself as a test case for euthanasia. The two cases involved mothers who both admitted killing their children with lethal doses of drugs.
On Jan. 20, for example, a jury found Frances Inglis guilty of injecting her brain-damaged son, Thomas, 22, with a lethal overdose of heroin. She said she did it to “free him from disfigurement, permanent disability and round the clock care.”
She was sentenced to life in prison and must serve a minimum of nine years.
Outside the court, her family called for a change in the laws governing assisted suicide. As it currently stands, there is a maximum sentence of 14 years for assisting suicide.
In a similar case, Kay Gilderdale was acquitted Feb. 1 for the killing of her daughter Lyn, 31. Lyn Gilderdale had myalgic encephalopathy, also known as chronic fatigue syndrome, which left her depressed, disabled and suicidal. She had expressed to her mother a wish to die.
Jurors took only two hours to acquit. The judge, who praised them for “common sense, decency and humanity,” said the case should never have gone to court.
Pratchett, a longtime supporter of assisted suicide, used the prestigious Richard Dimbleby lecture to present himself as a test case for euthanasia. Pratchett, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, said there should be a tribunal set up to look into the pros and cons of each potential assisted suicide case.
This tribunal, made up of doctors, lawyers and psychiatrists, would be able to discern if the applicants had sufficient reason to kill themselves, he argued.
His speech was welcomed by the organization Dignity with Dying, which said in a press statement, “We commend Sir Terry Pratchett for sparking a public debate on this important issue and for seeking a compassionate way forward. At present those who are suffering unbearably at the end of life and who want choice and control over the time and manner of their death have no other option but to take matters into their own hands.”
In another highly publicized story, BBC presenter Ray Gosling admitted to suffocating his homosexual lover, who was dying of AIDS, some years ago in a television documentary that aired Feb. 15. He did not specify the person or when the incident occurred, but he was subsequently arrested by police.
The director of the Crown Prosecution Service, Keir Starmer, published a final draft of the “Policy for Prosecutors in Respect of Cases of Encouraging or Assisting Suicide.” This policy is a formal guidance for the Crown Prosecution Service on the decision to bring charges in assisted suicide cases.
Starmer was forced into publishing these after Debbie Purdy, a woman suffering from primary progressive multiple sclerosis, won a ruling from the House of Lords in July 2009 to have the guidelines published.
Until this ruling, there was no formal written policy in place to guide the Crown Prosecution Service in deciding whether or not to prosecute someone who assisted another person in committing suicide.
Purdy wanted to travel abroad to commit suicide but did not want her husband, who planned to travel with her, to face charges of assisting her suicide upon his return. The initial draft, published in September, created much consternation among disabled persons’ rights campaigners and pro-life groups.
Following a huge consultation process, which included more than 5,000 respondents, the final draft was published Feb. 25. Starmer’s original draft of the guidelines had stated, in the “Factors Against Prosecution” section, that a person assisting a suicide would be less likely to be prosecuted if the victim had “a terminal illness or a severe and incurable physical disability or a severe degenerative physical condition.”
The final draft removed this factor, meaning that the victim’s health is no longer a factor affecting prosecution.
The final guidelines have been given a cautious welcome by Church officials and disabled-rights campaigners, who say that the final draft grants greater protection to disabled and terminally ill people.
“Our particular concerns were that the interim guidelines gave less protection under the law to disabled or seriously ill people and to those who had a history of suicide attempts and were likely to try again,” Archbishop Peter Smith of Cardiff, Wales, said in a statement obtained by the Register. “There also appeared to be a presumption that a spouse or close relative would always act simply out of compassion and never from selfish motives.
“These factors have been removed from the new guidelines, which now give greater protection to some of the most vulnerable people in our society. There is also a greater stress on the fact that the law has not changed, that all cases will be investigated, and that no one is being given immunity from prosecution under these guidelines.”
Baroness Jane Campbell of Surbiton, who campaigns for disabled rights and who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy, said in an interview, “We welcome the fact that disabled persons’ rights have been recognized as the same as everyone else’s under the law; their rights are no different than anyone else’s.
However, one of the ‘factors against prosecution,’ being ‘wholly motivated by compassion’ is ambiguous and is open to abuse. Disabled people want to be able to speak for themselves.”
Alistair Thompson, spokesman for Care Not Killing, an anti-euthanasia charity, echoed this sentiment.
“This is a great improvement on the first draft,” he said. “The director of the Crown Prosecution Service was given an impossible task, given the number of responses he received, but we are very happy that he removed the terms ‘terminally ill’ and ‘disabled’ from the guidelines.”
Thompson went on to express the same reservation about the compassionate grounds, saying, “I’m sure there will be some test cases; we will have to see what happens.”
A Catholic lord, who has been campaigning on pro-life issues for more than 30 years, has warned that this is not the end of the matter. Lord David Alton of Liverpool told the Register, “A sustained campaign is under way to legalize assisted suicide and euthanasia. Disabled people’s organizations and doctors’ organizations remain resolutely opposed [to legalizing assisted suicide]. You don’t need a doctor to kill you to die with dignity.”
Gareth Peoples writes from Ballykelly, Northern Ireland./images/uploads/Starmerp.jpg/images/uploads/Starmerp.jpg