Leading article: Assisted suicide calls for the wise exercise of discretion

Debbie Purdy won a victory for clarity, but dilemmas remain

Share
Related Topics

Debbie Purdy said she was ecstatic about her legal victory in the House of Lords, as well she might have been. The ruling represents a complete vindication for her in her long battle through the courts and means that the law on assisted suicide must be clarified. It also brings the whole subject of euthanasia back into the public arena.

In their final ruling before the summer recess and their re-emergence in the autumn as Supreme Court justices, the law lords said that the law as it stands was not as clear and precise as it should be. They instructed the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to set out the factors he would take into account when deciding whether prosecutions should be brought. That meets Mrs Purdy's demand that those contemplating assisted suicide, and those who would help them, should have a better idea of where they stand in relation to the law.

Mrs Purdy also won on a second point, when the Law Lords agreed, citing the European Convention on Human Rights, that she had the right to choose how she died. The central purpose of her fight had been to ensure that her husband, Omar Puente, would not face prosecution if he helped her to end her life abroad. She seems to have achieved this, and quite a bit more.

The ruling is significant not just for what it said. It also crowned an inspiring personal campaign. Rebuffed in two lower courts, Mrs Purdy – who suffers from multiple sclerosis – insisted on fighting on. Her victory demonstrates that one determined individual, well-informed and passionate about a cause, has a fair chance against what often seems an impenetrable wall of political and judicial authority. That says something good about our country, its institutions and its courts. Where others went before and lost – notably the late Diane Pretty, who strove for the right to an assisted suicide in Britain – Mrs Purdy, with a narrower agenda, has prevailed.

For all the joy and relief in the air around Westminster yesterday, however, there will be those who do not share Mrs Purdy's elation, and we admit to misgivings of our own. We would particularly question her description of the ruling as "a huge step towards a more compassionate law". In principle, clarity in the law is highly desirable, even essential. But there are instances – and difficult ethical issues are among them – where exactitude can be more of a hindrance than a help.

The DPP has now to identify considerations that will militate for or against prosecution in cases of assisted suicide. Spelling these out could turn out to be limiting rather than liberating. It risks giving rise to perverse judgments that match the letter rather than the spirit of the law and invite reversal on appeal. The wise exercise of discretion has a role.

The reality is that so far no one in the UK has been prosecuted for accompanying someone to commit suicide abroad. But it is not impossible to conceive of situations in which the motives of friends or relatives might be neither noble nor compassionate – to use Mrs Purdy's words. There are dangers in reversing the presumption that helping to end someone else's life prematurely is a bad thing. Not to be ignored either is the negative message any change in the law could send to those with terminal or progressive illnesses.

As the population ages and a new generation increasingly expects to have control over death as well as life, these questions need to be debated. Debbie Purdy's victory must be the beginning of such a discussion, not its end.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

£23000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small, friendly, proactive...

Recruitment Genius: Photographic Event Crew

£14500 - £22800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developers - .NET / ASP.NET / WebAPI / JavaScript

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Software Developer is required to join a lea...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Solicitor - City

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A first rate opportunity to join a top ranking...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

After Savile, we must devote our energies to stopping the child abuse taking place now

Mary Dejevsky
A ‘hugely irritated’ Sir Malcolm Rifkind on his way home from Parliament on Monday  

Before rushing to criticise Malcolm Rifkind, do you know how much being an MP can cost?

Isabel Hardman
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower