Guidelines on assisted suicide: perspectives on end of life care

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Following the law lords ruling in the case of Debbie Purdy, a multiple sclerosis sufferer and the face of Britain's right-to-die campaign, Keir Starmer QC, Director of Public Prosecutions has clarified the factors that are considered when deciding whether to prosecute someone for helping a person to die.

It is important to note that the CPS Policy on Assisted Suicide 2010 does not change the law or open the floodgates to euthanasia and that assisted suicide still remains an offence.

Anyone who takes the life of another may be charged with manslaughter or murder.

Assisted Suicide Prosecutions are more likely if:

  • the victim is under the age of 18
  • the victim does not have mental capacity
  • the victim had not reached a 'voluntary, clear, settled and informed decision'
  • a doctor, nurse or other health care professional assists in the suicide.

A clear distinction is drawn between helping someone to take their own life and actually taking a life. Motivation is a key factor that has to be considered carefully. If it is deemed that the suspect's actions were motivated by compassion then prosecution is less likely.

The end of life debate

There are various view points surrounding end of life decisions. There is the modern hospice movement who have been a powerful force behind the opinion that euthanasia/assisted suicide is wrong and that better quality of care for patient's dying of cancer and other life-limiting conditions is the right way forward.

There are the recent cases of Debbie Purdy and Daniel James who have been campaigning for change.

However there is also the opinion of parents who have battled to preserve a child's life, after parents and doctors have had differing opinions on what constitutes a worthwhile and meaningful life.

Some feel that any change in law that supports assisted suicide is undermining the right of life, peace of mind and freedom from fear of many vulnerable people (eg anyone with impairment such as cerebral palsy or other serious illnesses) who would be made to feel they are a burden and should not expect their families or the state to look after them.

Many doctors continue to oppose any change in the law relating to assisted suicide.

There is evidence that people can be remarkable in coping and leading meaningful lives following injury and illness. It is important not to make assumptions - what one person considers a burden may not be to another. Technology and special/adaptive equipment can enhance and often transform people's lives and that of their families.


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