Call to end 'cruel uncertainty' over assisted suicide

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Parliament is being urged to end the "cruel" uncertainty over the law on assisted suicide after multiple sclerosis sufferer Debbie Purdy today lost her Court of Appeal bid to clarify it.

Three appeal judges spoke of Ms Purdy's "dreadful predicament" but told her they could not give her "the absolute security of mind she is seeking".

Ms Purdy, 45, from Undercliffe, Bradford, West Yorkshire, believes the time may come when primary progressive MS will make her life intolerable and she will want to end it.

She wants to be sure that her husband, Cuban violinist Omar Puente, will not be prosecuted if he helps her travel abroad to die in a country where assisted suicide is legal.

Today Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge and two other appeal judges, Lord Justice Lloyd and Lord Justice Ward, ruled Ms Purdy was not legally entitled to the kind of specific guidance from the Director of Public Prosecutions she was seeking.

The DPP could not "act as her legal adviser" or provide her "with the absolute security of mind she is seeking", they said.

"Notwithstanding our sympathy for the dreadful predicament in which Ms Purdy and Mr Puente find themselves, this appeal must be dismissed."

After today's ruling, Ms Purdy said the judges had indicated that Omar was "unlikely" to be prosecuted in the light of the case of talented young rugby player Dan James, who was left paralysed by training injuries.

The DPP had decided not to prosecute Dan's parents for assisting him to die as it would not be "in the public interest".

Ms Purdy said she had "won the argument" and was one step closer to the clarification she needed, even though she had lost her appeal.

It was now for Parliament to end the remaining public uncertainty.

She said of the judges: "They've done their best to put my mind at rest, but I don't think it is enough.

"We need to make sure whatever rules govern this society are ones society is happy with in this century."

She added she would not make any plans for further action until she had spoken in detail with her lawyer.

In England and Wales, aiding and abetting suicide is a criminal offence punishable by up to 14 years in prison under the 1961 Suicide Act.

Ms Purdy, whose legal action was supported by Dignity in Dying - formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society - was diagnosed with primary progressive MS in 1995 and has been a wheelchair user since 2001.

She says she wants to "live forever".

However, she is a member of Dignitas, the Swiss organisation which operates specialist euthanasia clinics.

Now gradually losing strength in her upper body, she plans to travel to Switzerland to end her life if her condition becomes unbearable.

Dignitas opened in 1998 and has so far helped over 100 UK citizens end their lives. It currently has upward of 694 UK members.

Her call for Parliament to intervene was echoed by Dr Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon.

He said: "The DPP has never found a basis for prosecution in over 100 cases of assisted dying - including one where the patient was not even terminally ill - so it is time for Parliament to remove the doubt which makes an upsetting situation even more traumatic.

"The current law is made impotent by the apparent policy of non-prosecution, but cruel by virtue of its existence, so should be changed.

"It is now clearly up to Parliament to do what the court said the DPP could not - to make it clear that a relative who helps a mentally competent, terminally-ill person to Dignitas would not be committing a criminal offence, or that they would have a statutory defence."

In today's unanimous ruling, the appeal judges said that "all that could be done" was for Ms Purdy to rely on a combination of the general guidance available on the law and the Dan James case.

The appeal judges said that, even if a defendant in an assisted suicide case were to be convicted, a court could take the view that the circumstances were such that no penal sanction was appropriate.

Or the court could order that the offender should be discharged, "and might well question publicly the decision to prosecute".

Sarah Wootton, chief executive of Dignity in Dying, said: "Dignity in Dying is pleased that the courts have gone some way to clarifying the law for Debbie, although this is not the full resolution she was hoping for.

"The court has made it quite clear that it is unlikely that Omar would be prosecuted if he were to accompany Debbie abroad for an assisted death.

"To underline this point, the judgment goes on to make clear that if someone like Omar were prosecuted, the courts are likely to dismiss the case or discharge them without a sentence.

"The courts have done all they can. They make quite clear that only Parliament has the authority to change the law.

"If there's no public interest in prosecuting, there must be a public interest in updating the law to remove doubt."

Today's ruling was welcomed by Care Not Killing, a campaign group promoting palliative care and opposing assisted suicide.

The group said in a statement: "Much as we sympathise with Debbie Purdy's distressing condition, it is necessary to remember that laws exist to give protection to vulnerable people.

"While a small number of highly resolute individuals may be clear about wanting to commit suicide rather than live with chronic illness, the law has to consider the interests of much larger numbers of sick people who may feel pressure to end their own lives, whether from others or (more often) from internalised feelings of guilt at being a burden to their families.

"Assistance with suicide is therefore illegal, and Parliament has rejected proposals to change the law.

"To ask the DPP, as Ms Purdy was suggesting, to state how much assistance with suicide could be given without incurring prosecution would be tantamount to changing the law by stealth."