Soon, the House of Lords will be no more. Well, the judicial branch, at any rate. From October, its powers will transfer to a new "Supreme Court of the United Kingdom" and its "law lords" will become "justices." Plans to reform the legislative branch of the House of Lords are significantly less advanced, by the way...
Anyway, in its final case, the Lords considered the plight of Debbie Purdy and her husband Omar Puente. Ms. Purdy suffers from primary progressive multiple sclerosis, for which there is no known cure. Some time in the future, Ms. Purdy expects the disease will become unbearable and she will want to end her life. By that time, however, she will be unable to do so without assistance.
Under current UK law, aiding and abetting suicide is a criminal offense
punishable by up to 14 years in prison (as documented in a recent blog on this
site, Assisted Suicide Debate Intensifies).
Consequently, many British citizens have travelled abroad to die, to countries where assisted suicide is lawful. Ms. Purdy may eventually do likewise and her husband is willing to help her.
Until now, the Crown Prosecution Service has refrained from prosecuting family members who help patients travel to places like the Dignitas suicide clinic in Switzerland, but almost all the relatives have endured distressing police interviews. Moreover, the threat of prosecution has forced some to go to die alone or earlier than otherwise for fear of what may happen to those who accompany them.
In February, the Court of Appeal dismissed Ms. Purdy's case to clarify the
circumstances in which family members, such as Mr. Puente, could face
prosecution for assisted suicide. The court commented "the offense is very
widely drawn to cover all manner of different circumstances" and stressed that
"only Parliament has the authority to change it."
As for Parliament, well, in earlier this month it voted against amending the law.
Yesterday, however, the Lords unanimously overturned the decision of the Court
of Appeal. In so doing, it stressed it was merely applying the law,
not changing it; and ruled it was a breach of Ms. Purdy's right to
respect for her private life under article 8 of the European Convention on Human
Rights not to know whether her husband will be prosecuted if he accompanies her
abroad to die.
After the ruling, Ms. Purdy said:
"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.
"This 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.
"I am grateful to the law lords for listening and rising to the challenge that this case presented. I also want to thank other campaigners like Diane Pretty, who is no longer with us, and all those whose efforts created this huge step towards a more compassionate law.
"It feels like everything else doesn't matter and now I can just be a normal person. It's terrific.
"It gives me my life back.
"We can live our lives. We don't have to plan my death."