Sarah Wootton: Only clearer laws can bring compassion to the euthanasia debate

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The Independent Online

A not guilty verdict in the case of Kay Gilderdale was the right decision. Whilst we don't condone acting outside of the law, and it is important that these kinds of cases are investigated, the judge is now able to use his discretion when sentencing Kay Gilderdale. Given that she pleaded guilty to assisting in a suicide, she will be sentenced under the Suicide Act; therefore, the judge is not forced to impose a mandatory sentence.

As demonstrated here and in the case of Frances Inglis last week, the existing law doesn't work in practice and is not in line with public opinion. Ultimately, we need a full public consultation on whether the law should change, to regulate and legalise assisted dying for terminally ill people and to create a specific or partial defence of "mercy killing" for these offences. The law needs to protect potentially vulnerable people by being tough on malicious or irresponsible behaviour, but it also needs to be flexible enough to show mercy when the motivation is clearly compassion.

There is a clear ethical difference between assisted dying, assisted suicide, euthanasia and murder, yet the law makes little distinction between these acts. Assisted dying is assisting a terminally ill, mentally competent adult to shorten the dying process, at their request; assisted suicide is assisting the death of a chronically ill, suffering person if they ask for help; euthanasia is direct action to end a person's life to enable that person to have a good death; and murder is a malicious, self-serving act which results in the death of another. While cases relating to all these occurrences must be investigated, people who act compassionately to end the suffering of someone they love should not be subjected to the full force of the murder law, which carries a mandatory life sentence.

The Law Commission reviewed murder law in 2006 and recommended that a further review was needed in relation to cases of "mercy killing". This is yet to be implemented.

Dignity in Dying calls for an urgent review into this area of the law and suggests that a separate law to cover cases such as these, or a partial defence of mercy killing, may be appropriate.

Dr Sarah Wootton is chief executive of Dignity in Dying (