England Issues Guidelines On Assisted Suicide

New guidance has been issued to clarify the law on assisted suicide in England and Wales. Helping someone commit suicide is illegal there, and these guidelines will not change the law. The subject has become a hot topic in Britain as more people receive help from friends and relatives to travel to a clinic in Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal.

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Assisted suicide is illegal in Great Britain, and it's also part of a major debate. More and more Britains who want to end their lives are traveling to Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal. It's been a gray area when it comes to the question of whether someone in Britain can be prosecuted for helping a person go to Switzerland to commit suicide. Now new guidelines have been issued to help clarify the issue. NPR's Rob Gifford reports from London.

ROB GIFFORD: British police have referred several of the cases of British people traveling to Switzerland to die to the director of public prosecutions here. But he has decided in all the cases not to prosecute, largely because all of the cases appear to be friends and relatives acting out of compassion.

But the issue has now come into sharp focus because of a long legal fight by a 46-year-old woman with multiple sclerosis name Debbie Purdy who wanted to be clear: If her husband helped her to get to Switzerland to die would he be prosecuted or not? Britain's highest court of appeal ruled in July that Ms. Purdy had the right to know under what circumstances her husband would be prosecuted, hence the release of the guidelines yesterday.

The man issuing those guidelines is Director of Public Prosecutions Keith Starmer.

Mr. KEITH STARMER (Director of Public Prosecutions): Is the motivation, as it were, that of a compassionate spouse or other relative or is it the motivation of somebody who stands to gain through the death of another person? So encouragement where the motivation is anything other than compassionate is something which under the guidelines will go as a factor in favor of prosecution.

GIFFORD: As well as ensuring checks are made as to whether an assister will gain financially, Starmer said the guidelines will also protect those who are underage or mentally ill and would prevent anyone trying to organize assisted suicide on a larger scale basis.

Debbie Purdy, the woman whose case prompted the publication of the guidelines, said she was thrilled to have the clarification, but she still wants to see the law changed so that it's legal to assist suicide in Britain.

Ms. DEBBIE PURDY: We're not talking about people suffering depression and popping into the doctor's office on a Friday afternoon saying, I'm unhappy, help me die. We're talking about people who have incurable diseases or who are terminally ill. Rather than worrying about their duty to die, we need also to worry about people not feeling that they have a duty to suffer and being kept alive against their will in order that they can exist in a life which isn't acceptable to them.

GIFFORD: Opponents of assisted suicide emphasize the guidelines do not change the law and they're fighting to make sure that law does not change. Twice in the last four years parliament has rejected such an amendment. Dr. Peter Saunders works for the alliance called Care Not Killing.

Dr. PETER SAUNDERS (Chairman, Care Not Killing): Our real concern is about public safety. It's about people who are sick or elderly or depressed or disabled feeling under pressure, particularly at a time where families are under financial pressure, health and benefit cuts are coming - who feel under pressure to end their lives so as not to be an emotional, financial burden on others.

GIFFORD: But just as yesterday's guidelines appear to clarify that prosecution is unlikely for those acting out of compassion, in Switzerland the debate is heating up about whether Swiss laws should be tightened. Some there have expressed concern about so-called suicide tourism. A government paper is due to come before parliament proposing that only Swiss people are allowed to use the services of the two organizations that assist suicides.

Rob Gifford, NPR News.

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