Jeremy Laurance: Should it be a crime to help someone end their life?

Medical Life

Our cheery subject for today is suicide. Some years ago, a family friend took her own life. She was the widow of a doctor, with no children, in her 80s, and starting to become increasingly infirm, though she wasn't suffering from any terminal illness. She used to phone me from time to time to discuss medical matters in the news. Then I heard she was dead, having swallowed a handful of pills. She was lonely, I think.

Tomorrow Keir Starmer, director of public prosecutions, has promised to clarify when people who assist a relative or friend to end their lives may be liable for prosecution. I have no idea whether anyone assisted my friend, though I doubt it. She ended her life as she lived it: in control.

Mr Starmer has made clear assisting a suicide will remain a crime – it is for Parliament to change the law, not the DPP. But how can "clarifying" the circumstances in which people may avoid prosecution not, in practice, make "assisting" suicide easier?

It is also odd that Mr Starmer is to clarify the policy on prosecution in Britain for an act that is currently only legal abroad. The focus has been on people who have travelled – or may want to in the future – to Dignitas, the organisation in Switzerland that, uniquely, is prepared to help foreigners end their lives. As we reported yesterday, as Britain prepares to ease the way for people who wish to go to Dignitas, disquiet is growing in Switzerland at the growth in "suicide tourism" that it has fostered.

A key question about tomorrow's guidance will be where it leaves a person who provides assisted suicide in this country – by obtaining a lethal dose of drugs, for instance, together with advice on how they should be taken. It is not difficult to do. With a couple of clicks of the mouse, I found a guide on the web that would provide all you needed to know, on sale for $32.

But when I try to imagine myself being asked by a terminally-ill relative for help to end their life, I can more easily picture myself travelling with them to Switzerland and getting a third party to mix the fatal dose than I can doing it myself.

This is not just squeamishness. Employing an organisation with medical expertise not only distances the act, and provides a measure of independent assessment, however perfunctory, it also ensures it will be carried out correctly. A botched death would be the worst possible outcome. Even Bath GP Ann Turner, who would certainly have had the necessary medical expertise, chose to die at Dignitas in 2006 when terminally ill with motor neurone disease, in a case that attracted wide publicity.

Dignitas has been the focus of attention because when people travel to Switzerland to end their lives, the people who are assisting the suicide are obvious – they travel on the same plane and stay in the same hotel. But in most cases, such as that of my friend, establishing who assisted them, or whether anyone did, will be a much trickier task. For that, we may be thankful. Mr Starmer's guidance will be welcome, but there is more to do to ease the plight of those close to death. This is the start, not the end, of the debate.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: UX Consultant

    £35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will be working with a 8 st...

    Recruitment Genius: Part-time Editor

    £8000 - £12000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A unique opportunity has arisen ...

    Recruitment Genius: Field Sales Executive

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An exceptional opportunity has arisen for a pa...

    Recruitment Genius: Kitchen and Bathroom Installers

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This provider of designer kitch...

    Day In a Page

    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
    Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

    The dark side of Mexico

    A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

    Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border