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.

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