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Debbie Purdy - It's not about choice, it's about public safety

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3rd February 2009

It's not about choice, it's about public safety

Hearings begin today in an Appeal that Debbie Purdy, who has multiple sclerosis, is making against a High Court judgment last autumn. Ms Purdy wants the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to be instructed to say under what circumstances her husband would be prosecuted if he were to her assist her to travel to Switzerland at some point in the future in order to commit suicide at the Dignitas suicide facility. She argues that the law as it stands isn't clear because, though assistance with suicide is illegal in Britain, no one who has accompanied a friend or relative to Switzerland for a Dignitas suicide has so far been prosecuted on return to the UK. Ms Purdy claims that, if she cannot be told what her husband may or may not do to help her travel to Switzerland without facing prosecution on his return, she will have to go there earlier than planned in order not implicate him.

The case is being supported by the organisation Dignity in Dying (formerly known as the Voluntary Euthanasia Society). Its premisses are, however, unsound. The law that prohibits assistance with suicide is clear. It was explained in an excellent and readable Brief that was sent by an All-Party Parliamentary Group to Members of both Houses of Parliament shortly before Christmas, titled 'The law ain't broke, so don't fix it!' The Brief can also be accessed by clicking on the Dying Well website.

It is being claimed by Ms Purdy's supporters that the issue in her case is choice. It isn't: the real issue is public safety. Laws exist primarily to give protection to vulnerable people rather than to provide newly-invented rights to vocal minorities. While no one is suggesting that Ms Purdy is not suffering distress from her condition, the creation of a legal right to have help to commit suicide would have serious implications for the safety of the great majority of seriously ill people. To ask the DPP to say how much assisting with suicide Ms Purdy's husband might do without being prosecuted is like asking him how much we might steal without being charged with theft or how much injury we might inflict without being prosecuted for assault. A moment's thought shows the idea to be preposterous.

It is ironic that this case should come up for Appeal at the same moment as the Government is seeking, via its Coroners and Justice Bill (now before Parliament), to tighten - rather than loosen - the law on assisted suicide in order to outlaw internet websites and other media outlets that advertise and encourage suicide and that may well have played a part in recent spates of suicides among young people in Britain. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, the pro-euthanasia lobby is arguing that this sensible updating of the law to bring it into the age of the internet and the mass media and to give better protection to vulnerable people should be accompanied by further changes to legalise assistance with suicide for seriously ill people. The Government is right to close a loophole in the law, and it should resist strident demands from single-issue pressure groups to open new ones at the same time.

BBC Report of Case
CNK comment on High Court Judgment

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