Leading article: Death with dignity

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The Independent Online

The dilemma Debbie Purdy faces is about as agonising as can be imagined. She has a terminal illness and is anxious to be in a position to decide when and if to end her own life, should her condition become unbearable. But she is also desperate to protect her husband, a Cuban musician, Omar Puente, from the threat of prosecution if he were to assist her. She wants the option of travelling to the Swiss clinic, Dignitas, in Zurich, where terminally ill patients are helped to a quick and painless death.

The couple have come a long way from the night they met in Singapore 13 years ago, when Ms Purdy, a marketing executive, was on holiday and Mr Puente was playing with his band in the World Music Club. She had spent 10 years travelling the world skiing, diving and parachuting and she returned home a few days later to be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The couple married 10 years ago. Now Ms Purdy is confined to a wheelchair, losing the strength in her upper body and having to confront her own mortality. Describing herself as a "planner and preparer", she says she wants the right to plan her own death, which her lawyers argue is her human right.

The Crown Prosecution Service has said the Director of Public Prosecutions has no plans to issue further guidance on what constitutes assisted suicide, arguing that each case must be considered on its merits. But this is not good enough for Ms Purdy, or the UK charity, Dignity in Dying, which is supporting her appeal. She, and they, want clarity over whether buying a plane ticket and pushing a wheelchair could, in this context, be held to be in breach of the law. She is not seeking a change in the law, merely clarity in how it is applied.

In practice, none of the 100 cases involving Britons who have already gone to Dignitas has resulted in a prosecution, though some relatives have been questioned. But families are left in limbo, uncertain about the outcome. Another 650 people have registered with Dignitas, like Ms Purdy, and the numbers consulting Dignity in Dying for advice are growing all the time. The issue of what is to be done for people in Ms Purdy's acute situation cannot any longer be ignored.