Britain Won’t Prosecute Assisted Suicide: Chief Prosecutor

LONDON, September 21, 2009 ( – Under new guidelines to be issued Wednesday, individuals who help others kill themselves will escape prosecution and punishment in Britain as long as prosecutors can discern no motive of personal gain in assisting in the suicide.

This past weekend Keir Starmer, Britain and Wales’ Director of Public Prosecutions, gave several news outlets a preview of changes made to the assisted suicide law’s guidelines. The new guidelines are due for publication Wednesday.

Starmer told BBC’s Andrew Marr that “while we’re certainly not changing the law,” the new guidelines intend to “clarify when individuals are more likely to be prosecuted or more likely not to be prosecuted.” 

“The general approach we’ve taken is to try to steer a careful course between protecting the vulnerable from those that might gain from hastening their death, but also identifying those cases where nobody really thinks it’s in the public interest to prosecute,” said Starmer.

The DPP confirmed that the prosecution guidelines will apply to suicides committed in Britain and Wales, as well as those outside the country, suggesting that it would be unfair to discriminate those who “can’t afford” to travel to Switzerland to kill themselves. 

“The one thing I hope I have made clear is that this policy will cover assisted suicide wherever it takes place,” Starmer told the Guardian, “including in England and Wales [Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own prosecution services]. It shouldn’t be something that covers those who go to Switzerland and not those who can’t afford to do so.”

While the new guidelines appear to be set to effectively allow assisted suicide in the country – in practice, if not in official law – Keir says, “As for legalising assisted suicide altogether, that really is a matter for parliament.”

“Is that somewhere that the politicians think the public now is, such that they’ll move ahead?”

More than one hundred Britons, some of whom were not terminally ill or had no illness at all, have traveled overseas to kill themselves at the Swiss suicide facility Dignitas since 1992.  As the suicides mounted, the DPP’s office repeatedly asserted that accompanying relatives would not be prosecuted.  According to British law, assisting suicide is technically an offense that carries a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison.

The House of Lords recently ordered a further “clarification” of prosecution guidelines as part of their ruling in a case brought by Debbie Purdy, a British woman with multiple sclerosis.  In July, Purdy won her argument that the government should clarify whether her husband would be prosecuted, in the event he helped her kill herself in Switzerland.

The Telegraph’s George Pitcher slammed the planned guideline revisions as, “in reality, a change in the law” effected not “by Parliament, but by a ginger group of Lords and lawyers.”

“The DPP, Keir Starmer QC, has dutifully played his role in this legislative charade. He made some respectable noises after the Law Lords’ ruling that it wasn’t for him to change the law,” wrote Pitcher.  “Then he proceeded in effect to do just that.”

Pitcher lamented that “a deathly cabal is succeeding in usurping an age-old provenance of life over death without proper parliamentary debate.”

“We will end up with a Dignitas-style clinic, with its grotesque aspirations to self-destruction as a consumer choice, in Britain,” he wrote.

In the meantime, members of the Swiss government have begun moving toward tightening assisted suicide laws in an attempt to curb the increasing popularity of “suicide tourism.”

Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer Schlumpf reportedly supports a bid to tighten the country’s assisted suicide law that will be presented to the Swiss parliament. Two Swiss cabinet members are seeking to have the law abolished altogether, although their position is not expected to garner much support.

Swiss doctors have also criticized Dignitas for helping non-terminal and mentally ill individuals kill themselves.  The facility aroused fierce controversy in April, when founder Ludwig Manelli sought permission from the Swiss government to accommodate Vancouver resident Betty Columbias.  Columbias expressed a wish to be killed alongside her severely ill husband despite being in excellent health herself.

Alex Schadenberg, the head of Canada’s Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, told (LSN) today that revising the British guidelines were a natural part of the “right to die” lobby’s strategy to strike down anti-assisted suicide laws.

“It’s opened the door to the full striking down of the law, because what you’ve done is you’ve made certain circumstances where we’re going to turn a blind eye to the concept,” said Schadenberg.  “Under the whole concept of being equal and fair, it’s put into [the law] an inequality.” 

Schadenberg, who said he could not comment directly on the guidelines since they have not yet been officially released, also criticized the “clarifications” for stretching the purpose of the law.  “The law really can’t determine motive. Now we’re changing our determinations of the law,” he said.  

John Smeaton of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) suspected that Starmer’s pre-emptive discussion of the new guidelines was a public relations move designed to “soften up public opinion in advance of the new policy.”

“Statute law has not been changed but the DPP’s policy could well make a difference in the way people behave in circumstances of a person’s suicide,” wrote Smeaton on the SPUC blog.  The court decision spurring the revision, Smeaton noted, “included a legal argument to say that committing suicide was part of one’s right to private life which is protected in article eight of the European Convention on Human Rights.”

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