Charlie Courtauld: As an MS sufferer, this verdict makes my life a little more bearable


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First things first: I have no intention whatsoever of buying a one-way ticket to Switzerland. Not now and, hopefully, not ever: my multiple sclerosis is quite manageable at the moment, thank you.

As it is for millions. The variety of symptoms and degree of incapacity in MS are enormous. There are plenty of people with MS with no visible symptoms whatsoever. Then again, there are those living with some of the most ghastly afflictions imaginable: blindness, spasticity, inability to talk or swallow and, of course, pain. Some 15 per cent of MS sufferers commit suicide. And helping the sufferer on their way is illegal.

As it stands, the law seems clear enough. It is illegal – with up to 14 years in jail if found guilty – to counsel, procure, aid or abet a suicide. But the devil is in the detail: what does it mean to aid and abet? Is pushing a wheelchair an illegal act? Buying a map?

And so the news of Debbie Purdy's success in prompting the law lords to instruct the DPP to clarify the law on assisted suicide has reignited the debate among those of us with nasty diseases about the rights and wrongs of ending what may – and I repeat may – become an unendurable existence.

For many with MS, this debate is one best left under the carpet. There has never yet been a prosecution for any family member taking the trip to Dignitas, they point out. So why drag out the dirty linen? For such people, Debbie Purdy is a useful idiot, cynically manoeuvred by the suicide lobby. How would we feel, they ask, if the case had been brought not by Ms Purdy herself, but by her husband, Omar Puente?

It so happens that, in my day job, I've met both Ms Purdy and Mr Puente. As the producer of Sir David Frost's programme for Al Jazeera English, Frost Over The World, I invited Debbie and Omar to the studio earlier this year. As an MS patient quite content to put off any thoughts of Swiss travel, I was keen to find out why she is forcing us to think about things we'd rather not consider.

"We've been married for 10 years, we've been together for 13. I love him and I wouldn't want to be the cause of him putting himself in harm's way as far as the legal system is concerned," she said.

If her MS worsens, she argued, she would be tempted to make the trip to Switzerland alone, before the symptoms become unendurable – rather than wait until she became completely incapacitated and unable to travel without Omar.

I fully accept that for many MS patients – many with symptoms far worse than mine – Debbie Purdy's triumph with the law lords this week was an unwelcome and inappropriate intervention – like a loud fart at a Buckingham Palace tea party. But the overriding symptom of MS is uncertainty: you never know when you might have to face the nasty decisions. And, unpleasant though it might be, the law lords and Debbie Purdy have, for many of us, made it just a bit more bearable.

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