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debbie purdy

Debbie Purdy and husband Omar

Debbie Purdy, a multiple sclerosis sufferer was perhaps the most prominent campaigner for a change in law on assisted suicide.

A number of relatives had helped terminally ill, suffering loved ones go to Dignitas [a Swiss Clinic that practises euthanasia] and commit suicide. They risked a life sentence because according British law helping someone commit suicide [assisted suicide] is treated as murder. In practise however the courts had not punished these individuals as ‘it was not in the public interest’ .

The law has a stern face but a kind heart’ is how Baroness Finlay [a supporter of the present law]  described the present situation.

Debbie Purdy however complained that this ‘was a form of hypocrisy.’  Lord Falconer has said:

No one has the stomach to enforce the current law, because it is inhumane and further provides no protection for the vulnerable. The threat [of prosecution] forces some people to die alone and earlier than otherwise for fear of what may happen to those who accompany them.’

The Director of Public Prosecutions was asked by Debbie Purdy  under what circumstances her husband would be not be prosecuted if he helped her travel to Dignitas. She argued that ironically ‘the greater the risk of prosecution of her husband, the shorter would be her own life, as she would kill herself while she had the physical ability to do so unaided. ‘He says that he would be prepared to go to jail for me, no question. ‘ she said ‘but I love him and however remote the chance I wont let that happen.’

She won her case that the law needed clarifying in the House of Lords. The Director of Public Prosecutions, Kier Starmer  produced a set of guidelines in 2009,in response to Debbie Purdy’s case, in which he stated that the patient had to have shown that they had come to a ‘clear, settled and informed decision’ to commit suicide and that the loved one who aided them was entirely motivated by compassion. If this was so it would be unlikely people would be prosecuted.

Debbie Purdy would point out her wallet on the table ‘My credit card and Swiss law is my safety net, but we should have one in the UK’.  However last year she became too ill to travel and went to a hospice, deciding to end her life [like Tony Nicklinson who was another ‘right to die ‘ campaigner ] by refusing food. She died on Dec 23rd.

Assisted suicide has been the most prominent ethical issue in 2014. Public opinion is changing with now over 75% of the general public supporting a change in the law. The BMA is still against a change but a number of leaders of the Royal Colleges have argued that the medical profession should not stand in the way of change. Lord Falconer’s Bill to legalise physician assisted suicide, with safeguards, for those nearing the end of their life is being looked at by the House of Lords – the highest legislative body in the UK.’

Thou shalt not Kill‘ is an important, fundamental principle in most religions and morality. Opponents of assisted suicide also worry that this may be the beginning of a ‘slippery slope’ and lead to the vulnerable, being made to feel a burden and being pressurised to end their life.

Why does it matter?There is little more deeply rooted in all our fears than when and how we die and how we treat the dying is a test of civilised society.