By Hilary White

LONDON, July 31, 2009 ( – In a case that is being hailed as a victory for proponents of assisted suicide, Britain's Law Lords have ruled that the public prosecutors must “clarify” current law on the issue. The House of Lords judicial committee ruled yesterday that the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) for England and Wales must issue “guidance” on when and in what circumstances the law making it a criminal offense to assist suicide will be prosecuted.

The DPP Keir Starmer has responded that his office will be publishing a new policy by the end of September. Starmer also announced a public consultation to gauge public opinion on the issue.

The case against the DPP was brought by Debbie Purdy, a woman with multiple sclerosis who wants the courts to guarantee that her husband would not be prosecuted were he to help her commit suicide overseas. Despite the law making assisting suicide a criminal offense liable to 14 years in prison, the DPP's office had repeatedly asserted that relatives accompanying their loved ones to the Swiss suicide facility Dignitas would not be prosecuted.

In June this year, Sir Ken Macdonald, the former Director of Public Prosecutions for England and Wales, had confirmed his office did not intend to prosecute in such cases, but warned against making assisted suicide legal. Macdonald reaffirmed his position that there is “no public interest” in such prosecutions.

Purdy responded to yesterday's ruling, telling media that she is “ecstatic.” Purdy's campaign has been supported by Dignity in Dying, the euthanasia and assisted suicide lobby organization, which called the decision “historic.”

But pro-life and disability groups have responded that the decision is a threat to vulnerable people and the disabled, sending a signal that their lives are of less value and are less protected under the law.

Pam Macfarlane, Chief Executive of the MS Trust pointed out that MS is not a terminal condition. Simon Gillespie, Chief Executive of the Multiple Sclerosis Society, said that although Purdy's legal victory has “pushed MS into the spotlight,” “there is far more to living with MS – even in its more severe forms – than planning how to die.”

“There are 100,000 people with MS across the UK and most will live about as long as any of us. The key to living well with MS is access to the right care and support, including palliative care when it's needed.”

Phyllis Bowman, executive officer of Right to Life, said “We do not intend to leave the matter there. We will be consulting with our lawyers to see what possible action can be taken.”

“Much as we sympathise with Ms. Purdy, we are extremely concerned about the manner in which this will leave the vulnerable – that is the disabled, the sick, and the aged,” Bowman added.

Paul Tully, general secretary of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), said that despite the judges' assertion to the contrary, the case was a clear attempt to change the law. Tully warned that the judges had indicated a favorable attitude toward assisted suicide, with one saying that some who kill themselves “should be commended.”

Tully said, “None of the five judges suggests that it is wrong in general to help suicidal people with disabilities or degenerative conditions to kill themselves – and one suggests that bankruptcy or the grief of bereavement can be equally good reasons to commit suicide.”

“Most people with long-term disabilities, degenerative diseases or terminal illness do not seek to commit suicide, yet their lives could be undermined by this judgment. They may feel under pressure to kill themselves because they think they are a burden on others,” Tully said.

In January 2003, Reginald Crew, a 74 year-old man with motor neurone disease, became the first Briton to publicly travel to Switzerland to kill himself. Merseyside police announced that his wife would not be prosecuted for helping him. Since then it has been revealed that more than one hundred British people have travelled to Switzerland to kill themselves at the Dignitas facility.

Earlier this month, debate over assisted suicide flared again in Britain as one of the country's most respected conductors, Sir Edward Downes, and his wife Joan, who was suffering from terminal cancer, committed suicide at Dignitas. Both suicides were legal in Switzerland despite the fact that Downes was not suffering from any terminal illness.

Read related coverage:

“Victory”: Assisted Suicide Amendment Defeated in British House of Lords


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