Leading Article: Black, white and shades of grey

Click to follow

More than 100 Britons have travelled to Switzerland to take advantage of the country's assisted suicide law, according to recent figures from the Dignitas clinic. Among them – as we report today – was Daniel James, a 23 year-old who was paralysed after a rugby accident. From beginning to end, this is a tragic case. Who knows what was in Mr James's mind when he decided to do what he did? Was there something more that could have been done to make his life more tolerable? This and related questions may be tackled in the course of the police inquiry and inquest that have been ordered.

Some will use this case to argue that it should be made harder for Britons to seek the services of Dignitas and similar establishments. Rightly or wrongly, Mr James's age seems to cast assisted suicide in a different light. Whether you accept the practice as ethical or not, the choice seems explicable when it is made by someone with a terminal illness whose days are numbered; less so when it is a young man in his 20s. Yet to make the distinction is also illogical. Daniel James was an adult who, as his parents insist, knew his own mind and had the right to travel.

That is one side of the argument. The other is that Mr James, and others contemplating assisted suicide, should not have to make that fatal journey to Switzerland. Their view is that the law should be changed to permit the practice here, under appropriate psychological and medical supervision. If Debbie Purdy wins her court case – she suffers from multiple sclerosis and wants the Director of Public Prosecutions to be made to clarify under what circumstances someone will be prosecuted for assisting suicide – this could be seen as a step in that direction.

Ms Purdy instituted her case because the law as it stands in Britain leaves areas of grey – and grey areas in the law can be disconcerting. But there are choices that are above all personal and ethical, and the whole area of euthanasia and assisted suicide is one of them. Certainly, there is room for more public debate, and recent remarks by Baroness Warnock about ending the lives of dementia sufferers should be part of it. But in an age where so much is judged in black and white, greyness has its advantages.