Leading article: Helpful guidelines for a moral maze

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Society demands that the law walk a tightrope when it comes to assisted suicide. We want it to protect the vulnerable from rapacious relatives while, at the same time, easing the fears of the terminally-ill that their families could be prosecuted for helping them to end their lives abroad.

There were fears that the law would lose its balance when Debbie Purdy won her court case in the House of Lords in July, forcing the state to come up with "clarification" on when prosecutions for assisted suicide would be mounted. Thankfully, with the new guidance published yesterday by the Director of Public Prosecutions, that balance appears to have been retained.

The DPP has spelt out a number of factors that will be taken into account when the authorities decide on whether to mount prosecutions, ranging from an investigation into any possible financial motive on the part of relatives, to an analysis of the mental health of the deceased individual. It will also look in detail at how the decision was made and whether the person had expressed their clear, informed desire to end their life.

It is important to note what this new guidance does not change. It does not change the law prohibiting assisting suicide. And the guidelines make it clear that those who bully the elderly and sick into suicide for personal profit or convenience will face prosecution.

Yet the guidelines also provide reassurance to people in a situation like Ms Purdy (who welcomed the new guidelines yesterday) that their families will not face prosecution if they help them travel to a foreign euthanasia clinic. There is also enough left unspecified in these guidelines to preserve the ambiguity that enables prosecutors to use their discretion. It is quite right that each assisted suicide should continue to be examined on a case-by-case basis.

The philosophical and religious arguments about the sanctity of life versus the autonomy of the individual will doubtless continue. But the initial signs are that these new guidelines will give some welcome comfort to those vulnerable groups on either side of this vexed debate.

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