The right to end your life on the NHS will be available within a few years, campaigners forecast yesterday, as they stepped up their battle to change Britain's suicide laws.
Buoyed by the law lords' ruling in the case of Debbie Purdy, who has multiple sclerosis, they have vowed to renew their efforts to change the law. Mrs Purdy stressed yesterday that she would rather be able to die at home when she chooses, than go to Switzerland, where the laws on assisted suicide are less restrictive than in the UK.
"Swiss people don't use the Dignitas clinic, because the law allows them to die in hospital or at home," she said. "Foreigners do that, because we have no option. My choice would be to die at 90, of old age, after the medical profession had found a cure for multiple sclerosis, but because that probably won't happen, when life is unbearable I would prefer to be able to have an assisted death in this country, and not to have to travel."
Her remarks will fuel the campaign for a change in the 1961 Suicide Act, which makes it illegal under any circumstances to assist someone to commit suicide – with the result that 115 British patients have travelled to Switzerland to die there.
Lord Lester QC, one of the peers involved in a recent unsuccessful attempt to change the law, forecast: "It will happen in the end." He warned that any reform will face intense opposition, and could take 10 years. "We will try in the Lords and I'm sure people will try in the Commons. But it will be extremely controversial," he said. "It will be opposed not just on religious grounds. There are many in the palliative care area and in the legal profession who are against it, though the public is not – so I wouldn't bet on any government bringing in the legislation for a decade."
After hearing an appeal by Mrs Purdy, who wanted to know whether her husband, Omar Puente, would face prosecution if he accompanied her to Switzerland, the law lords have told the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, to clarify how his department decides whether or not to prosecute in assisted suicide cases. Mr Starmer has promised an interim report in September, and a public consultation before he makes a final report in spring 2010, which will cover assisted deaths in the UK as well as the cases of those who accompany loved ones to die abroad.
Mrs Purdy said yesterday: "Who would ever have expected the judiciary to work that fast? And if they can move that fast, then the politicians should make it happen quickly – but not too quickly, because the public want a very serious discussion of issues like coercion. We don't want a knee-jerk reaction that says, 'Ooh, the public want assisted suicide, so we'll do it next week', but they should deal with it urgently."
A group of MPs led by the former health secretary Patricia Hewitt and the Liberal Democrat Evan Harris tried recently to amend the suicide law, but could not persuade government whips to allow time for a debate in the Commons. A similar attempt in the House of Lords was voted down. "I don't see how the Commons can continue not to debate it," said Dr Harris. "Public support has always been high, and more and more opinion leaders are coming round, so there is the momentum for reform, but it's a long slog."
Sarah Wootton, chief executive of Dignity in Dying, said: "It could take as long as a decade before Parliament acts, but I hope it won't be. Things can change very quickly, as Debbie's case has demonstrated."
The Labour MP David Winnick said yesterday that he will try to bring in a private members' Bill to put the issue back on to the Commons agenda.
"I'm not saying for a moment, 'Let's try and encourage people to die', but if a person with a terminal illness does reach such a conclusion, that they don't want to go on, and want assisted dying, such a facility should exist," he said.
"If the law was changed we would need to have absolute safeguards against abuse and to give the person who has made such a decision every opportunity to change their minds and to make it clear it would be limited to those suffering from terminal illness."
The Church of England repeated in a statement yesterday its opposition to any law that permitted assisted suicide. "Parliament has consistently and rightly resisted all such attempts as any change could result in direct or indirect pressure being placed on ill, vulnerable or elderly people to consider ending their lives," it said.
"What may be thought of as greater choice for a few would become a burden for many. The life of every human being is of value and legislation and practice in the area of assisted suicide ought to continue to reflect this."Reuse content