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Assisted Suicide Debate Intensifies

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The recent deaths of Sir Edward and Lady Joan Downes at a Dignitas clinic in Zurich have reignited the debate on assisted suicide.  Under current UK law, aiding and abetting suicide is a criminal offense punishable by up to 14 years in prison.  Consequently, more than 115 British citizens have travelled to Dignitas to die, and, according to Baroness Jay, "one Briton a fortnight travels abroad for an assisted death in a jurisdiction where it is legal."

In many instances, loved ones accompany these so-called "suicide tourists" and, depending on each individual's condition, actively facilitate their death.  Last year, for example, Daniel James - paralysed from the chest down as a result of a rugby injury - persuaded his parents, Mark and Julie James, to take him to die in Switzerland.

When the couple returned to the UK, the police investigated the case and the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, QC, found "sufficient evidence" to convict.  He decided not to press charges against the Jameses, however, reasoning prosecution was not in the public interest.

Although the Crown Prosecution Service has refrained from prosecuting family members who help terminally ill patients (and, in Daniel's case, a tetraplegic) travel to Dignitas, almost all the relatives have endured distressing police interviews.  Moreover, according to Lord Falconer, the threat of prosecution "forces some people to go to die alone and earlier than otherwise for fear of what may happen to those who accompany them."

In February, the Court of Appeal dismissed a case brought by Debbie Purdy, who sought clarification on the circumstances in which family members could face prosecution for helping relatives to travel abroad to commit suicide.  The court commented "the offense of assisted suicide is very widely drawn to cover all manner of different circumstances" and stressed that only Parliament has the authority to change the law.

As for Parliament, well, on the very day the Downeses departed for Zurich, the House of Lords voted against an amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill to relax the absolute prohibition on assisted suicide.

Even if the amendment had passed, it would not have satisfied The Economist: "It is perfectly possible to frame a law that allows suffering people who are close to death to die quickly and peacefully.  The suicide-seeker declares he is not being pressured to kill himself; two doctors agree, and testify that he is terminally ill and of sound mind.  A waiting period before lethal drugs are dispensed ensures that the desire for death is a settled one.  A law of this sort would have allowed Lady Downes to die as she wished in her own country."  

The Economist acknowledges, however, that such a law would not have allowed Sir Edward or Daniel James to die in the UK - since they were not terminally ill - and concludes that whatever happens there are sure to to be more hard cases, and more attempts to change the law.

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