New British Assisted Suicide Rules Lead to the Prosecution of No One

Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer QC speaks at a press conference to outline new guidelines on assisted suicide at the Crown Prosecution Service in London on Sept. 28, 2009.

Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer outlines new assisted suicide guidelines at a press conference on Sept. 23, 2009. (Source: AP)

September 7, 2011

Has Britain subtly made assisted suicide (kind of) legal?

Forty-four Brits have been suspected of assisting in the suicide of a loved one in the past 18 months. None have been prosecuted even though, technically, assisting in a suicide illegal for British citizens. If convicted of the crime, a person could face up to 14 years in prison.

These numbers are the first published since Britain instituted a new approach towards assisted suicide a little over a year ago. The new regulations stem from a 2009 House of Lords decision in favor of Debbie Purdy, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. She asked the court to clarify whether or not her husband would be prosecuted for helping her travel to Dignitas for an assisted suicide; it ruled that not knowing whether he would face charges is a violation of her human rights.

In late February 2010, British Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer (pictured above), issued a list of conditions outlining the conditions under which someone aiding in suicide might not be prosecuted. They include:

+ the victim had reached a voluntary, clear, settled and informed decision to commit suicide

+ the suspect was wholly motivated by compassion

+ the actions of the suspect although sufficient to come within the definition of the crime, were of only minor encouragement or assistance

+ the suspect had sought to dissuade the victim from taking the course of action which resulted in his or her suicide

+ the actions of the suspect may be characterised as reluctant encouragement or assistance in the face of a determined wish on the part of the victim to commit suicide

+ the suspect reported the victim’s suicide to the police and fully assisted them in their inquiries into the circumstances

Read the full legal document here.

Starmer — who directly ruled on 31 of the 44 cases — says the number of assisted suicides is up slightly from previous years and suggests that the rise is indicative of a clearer law: “‘I think one of the reasons that there have been more cases since the assisted suicide guidance came out is people feel more confident coming forward and say what they’ve done because they’ve got a degree of clarity about what might happen to them.”

In light of the announcement, Dr. Peter Saunders of the organization Care Not Killing warned that the new rules present a “‘very real danger’ that prosecutors would in effect create laws which ran ‘contrary to the will of parliament.'”

“Each case is carefully considered on its own facts and merits,” says Starmer, who insists there is no “blanket policy” against prosecuting assisted suicide cases. “Prosecutors must decide the importance of each public interest factor in the circumstances of each case and go on to make an overall assessment.”

Statistics show that a majority of British citizens support leniency for those who help a loved one die; a 2010 BBC survey found that “73 percent of people agreed that family or friends should not fear prosecution” in situations involving a terminal illness. There was about a 50-50 split in cases where a person is suffering but is not terminally ill.

Assisted suicide, of course, is a controversial issue outside of Britain, and it’s one that isn’t going away anytime soon. Our 2010 film on the topic focused on the story of Craig Ewert, an American man with ALS who traveled to Dignitas to end his life. Currently a few U.S. states, Oregon and Washington included, have laws on the books that allow certain types physician assisted suicide. A petition to put the issue on the ballot in Massachusetts next year is currently in the hands of the state attorney general.

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