Saturday 13 September 2008

A dignified end

Under English law, if you help someone else to die because they are suffering from an unbearable terminal illness, you can be prosecuted for assisted suicide and jailed for up to 14 years.

Although people aren’t usually prosecuted and the authorities generally turn a blind eye, the law still exists and relatives who help in this way always risk this draconian penalty.

Now 45 year old Debbie Purdy, who has multiple sclerosis and wants to end her life with her Cuban-born husband Omar by her side, is taking legal action to force the Director of Public Prosecutions to state his policy on prosecuting assisted suicide.

She is planning to visit Dignitas, the Zurich clinic that helps terminally ill patients end their lives in comfort and dignity abroad.

But the legal uncertainty is causing her great anxiety. "I can't let Omar travel with me to Switzerland because that might be construed as assisting me in my death," she said. "But he says he is prepared to face jail if he could do something to stop my life being unbearable."

I think it’s quite wrong that people who seek to die because of their wretched quality of life, and want a loved one to help them, are still triggering a so-called crime that could put someone in a prison cell for a lengthy period.

I certainly wouldn’t want to spend years in pain and suffering, unable to enjoy life as I had in the past, and feeling increasingly despondent and hopeless. I would much rather end what’s left of my life. I don’t see why the law should deem anyone helping me to be a criminal in the same way as a murderer or a rapist.

People always raise the ugly spectre of relatives being got rid of for some malicious purpose like inheriting their money or moving into their house, but I’m sure safeguards could be arranged to avoid that sort of abuse. This remote risk shouldn’t prevent people ending intolerable suffering.

I hope the DPP recommends scrapping this insensitive law as soon as possible.

Photo: Debbie Purdy and Omar Puente


  1. I'm with you Nick.
    And who wants to die alone if they decide to take their lives early because its quality has deteriorated?
    I'd rather a loved one held my hand but not if they were going to be prosecuted as complicit in the arrangement.
    Isn't it extraordinary how religio-influence infests all our laws at the expense of compassion (I'm thinking the massive pro-life movement, partcularly)?

  2. www - Exactly, why should someone have to die alone without their loved one present? This outdated sanction has been in force far too long. And you're right, religion still taints too many laws.

  3. Nick my views on Euthanasia are clear, it's my right, my choice but WWW is quite right when she talks about the intrusion of religion into the pro euthanasia argument. Our pollies also allow it to influence them on gay marriage . .so much for the separation of religion and state! Let's hope she wins, it might become a legal precident and since we also abide by similar laws to the mother country might have some impact here. As it stands now, many elderly people particularly, smuggle nembutol in from Mexico as a precaution. (mm ..maybe I'd better seek out a vet . . could come in handy and save the cost of a trip!)

  4. This is a stretch but it should be like a donor card authorising use my organs and unplug me or put me out of my misery when I ask. Church has no place in this.

  5. I agree, the law is outmoded and draconian and has no place in civilised society.

    If you prosecute relatives for assisted suicides, why not prosecute people who attempt to take their own lives but fail? It doesn't make sense.

    Brave woman, I hope she wins her argument.

  6. Baino - This is it, because of the legal restrictions, people just resort to private subterfuge like getting hold of lethal drugs. And yes, state and religion are still far too intertwined.

    Quicky - a donor card specifying the right to die is an excellent idea.

    Hulla - In fact you could be prosecuted for a failed suicide right up to the sixties when the Suicide Act 1961 decriminalised suicide itself. But the law on assisted suicide stayed put.

  7. It's illegal in the US, too. Dr. Kevorkian did hard time for his role in helping many people with incurable diseases to die with dignity.

    Our lives and bodies should belong to us. That seems to me to be a fundamental right. Therefore it is wrong for governments to interfere.

    I feel great sorrow for that woman and others whose quality of life is beyond help and who are literally trapped in pain-ridden bodies by cruel laws.

  8. Heart - "Our lives and bodies should belong to us." Well put, that's absolutely it. Why should anyone else have the right to prolong a miserable life that we don't want to endure any more? Isn't that called torture?

  9. To have to think about whether her husband will experience further pain at her death is so unfair for a woman who has clearly been through enough. This time should be spent saying goodbye and and enjoying her loved ones, not in court battling for something that should be her right anyway. I think it is a disgrace - and terribly sad.

    I hope she wins and that a strong precedent is set for those unfortunate enough to follow.

  10. FG - Exactly, she should be making the most of the time left to her instead of having to battle against legal restrictions and uncertainties. And her husband shouldn't have to deal with this agonising dilemma.

  11. I see my thoughts will be unpopular but...

    There are people with integrity and Love in their hearts for whom this law is a tragedy. But, living on the other side of the pond, I'm afraid I am bombarded by a consistent deficit of integrity.

    I'd want a dignified end and I want it for others, as well. I just don't know how we keep those who would abuse the law from doing so.

    I would hate to lose a Loved one long before their time because I had another relative or caretaker who didn't want to be "saddled with long term care" or wanted an early inheritance or had some other excuse they used to mentally justify helping our Loved one to the other side.


  12. Gayle, that's a valid concern and of course nobody wants elderly people to be treated badly. But it seems to me we have to find effective ways to prevent such abuses so those who desperately want to end a wretched existence are able to do so.