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Euthanasia: tied up in knots
The views of a reactionary minority should not deprive terminally ill people of their right to die as they wish
Sarah Wootton
Sunday, 09 November, 2008 | 23:49
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In recent weeks there has been a huge amount of media interest surrounding Debbie Purdy. Purdy suffers from primary progressive multiple sclerosis and has decided that if her suffering becomes intolerable, she may travel to Switzerland to have an assisted death. Should she go through with this, she wishes to be accompanied by Omar Puente, her husband of ten years. However, the 1961 Suicide Act states that anyone who "aids, abets, counsels or procures a suicide" is liable to up to 14 years in prison. As a result, Puente could face years in prison if he travels with Debbie, knowing she is going to end her life.

While 100 British people are known to have travelled to Switzerland to end their lives, none of the people who have accompanied them has been prosecuted. Yet our laws are open to interpretation and discretion, so in every case there is a real threat of prosecution.

Dignity in Dying actively supported Purdy’s recent appeal to the High Court to clarify the Director of Public Prosecution’s (DPP) policy on the 1961 Suicide Act. Debbie and Omar want to know what constitutes assisting a suicide – is it travelling with a person to a foreign country knowing that they intend to end their life? Is it helping someone into a taxi at the start of their journey? Or is it simply packing their bag? Nobody knows.

Unfortunately, Purdy lost her battle for legal clarity. Independent MSP Margo MacDonald, however, aims to carry on where Purdy left off, and has announced her plans to take a bill to the Scottish Parliament to change the law on assisted dying. It is hoped that the consultation paper will be produced by the end of November, with the bill’s final proposals dependent upon the consultation’s results. It is encouraging to see that Scotland is taking such strides forward to change the law.

Opponents to our campaign, and to assisted dying in general, suggest that a change in the law cannot be justified by a minority of people wanting change. This "minority" simply does not exist; surveys consistently show that 75 to 80 per cent of the public support a change in the law. The majority are working against a very powerful and influential minority.

Critics also suggest that assisted suicide legislation would endanger the vulnerable. However, an array of strict safeguards would be included within any assisted dying legislation to ensure that that the patient’s final decision was their own fully informed choice.

Lord Joffe’s Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill (2006) envisaged that the process would begin with a written request to the patient’s doctor for assistance to die. The patient would then have to undergo a consultation from two doctors—one of which must be independent—and if either of the doctors had any concerns regarding the patient’s mental health, the patient would be referred to a psychiatrist. There would be a minimum of 14 days for reflection and the patient would be required to meet with a palliative care consultant. Only after all these and other safeguards were met could patients make a formal written request to a doctor who was willing to prescribe the medication to end their life. The patient, not the doctor, would administer the drugs.

In one of the most controversial cases to date, 23-year-old Daniel James recently travelled to Switzerland to end his life after being paralysed in a rugby accident. Under Dignity in Dying’s proposed legislation, James would not have been eligible for an assisted death as he was not terminally ill. But this case further highlights the need for a debate on assisted dying. Alongside those who travel abroad to end their lives, research shows that doctors are helping their patients to die, and loved ones are committing “mercy killings.” This needs to be regulated. Legislative guidelines would allow for open and honest talks about ending one's life, thus stopping the underground practices and devastating “botched suicides” that are currently taking place.

Of course those who oppose a change in the law are entitled to their beliefs, but their opinions should not be allowed to suppress the beliefs of others who support a change. It is time for an open and honest debate about assisted dying. Ultimately, this is an issue of choice. Terminally ill people should not have to suffer unnecessarily against their wishes.

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