Page last updated at 15:51 GMT, Friday, 6 June 2008 16:51 UK

MS woman in right-to-die appeal

By Fergus Walsh
Medical correspondent, BBC News


Debbie Purdy explains why she is considering assisted suicide

A woman with multiple sclerosis is to go to the High Court to ask the Director of Public Prosecutions to clarify the law on suicide.

Debbie Purdy, from Bradford, is considering travelling to Switzerland where assisted suicide is legal.

But she is worried her husband could be arrested on his return if he goes with her to Switzerland.

It is expected that lawyers for the Director of Public Prosecutions will vigorously resist the application.

Mrs Purdy enjoys life and is happily married to Omar, a professional musician.

Her home has been adapted to accommodate her electric wheelchair; the kitchen worktops can be lowered and Debbie does not allow her disability to stop her from leading an active life.

Yet she is considering suicide.

Losing strength

Debbie has progressive multiple sclerosis - she can no longer walk and is gradually losing strength in her upper body.

Sarah Wootton, Dignity in Dying
Some relatives have been questioned at length by the police, others put on bail and one arrested
Sarah Wootton
Dignity in Dying

At some point she said she may travel to Switzerland and take a lethal dose of barbiturates prescribed by doctors at the Dignitas organisation.

She said: "If my life becomes unbearable, if pain is unbearable; if living is worse than not living then I would end it.

"I don't want to choke to death or die in excruciating pain."

Mrs Purdy wants her husband to be at her side when she dies - but fears he may be prosecuted on his return to Britain.

So she is going to the High Court next week to ask the Director of Public Prosecutions to clarify the law.

On the face of it the law appears clear: aiding or abetting a suicide is a crime punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment.

And yet of the 92 Britons who have died at Dignitas since 1992, none of the relatives who accompanied them has been prosecuted.

Less leniency

Debbie's husband was born in Cuba and she worries that he might be regarded with less leniency than others.

Dr Peter Saunders, Care not Killing
The right to die can so easily become the duty to die
Dr Peter Saunders
Care not Killing

Mrs Purdy's case is being supported by the organisation Dignity in Dying, which wants assisted suicide to be legal in Britain.

Sarah Wootton, the chief executive, said: "Some relatives have been questioned at length by the police, others put on bail and one arrested.

"Some have had months of uncertainty before being told they would not be prosecuted, so we need clarity."

Mrs Purdy and Dignity in Dying want to know if a decision has been made not to prosecute relatives.

In one case police are said to have told a family that if they had pushed the wheelchair into the Dignitas clinic then it was not a crime but if they had helped someone drink a lethal dose it would have been an offence.

Clarification of the law is long overdue

A spokesperson for the Crown Prosecution Service said: "Each case must be reviewed individually in the light of all the available evidence and in accordance with the code for crown prosecutors before deciding whether or not a prosecution should be brought."

Dr Peter Saunders, from Care not Killing, said the police should uphold the law and it be left to judges to decide on punishment.

He said: "The law is there to protect the innocent and vulnerable.

"When someone is assisted to commit suicide they can no longer say whether there was coercion.

"Assisted suicide is wrong because it would put people under pressure if they felt they were a financial or emotional burden.

"The right to die can so easily become the duty to die."

The court case next week will not be lengthy.

Mrs Purdy will either be granted or refused permission to go ahead with a full court hearing at some future date.

Seven years ago Diane Pretty, who had motor neurone disease, failed to get immunity from prosecution for her husband if he helped her to die in the UK.

Several attempts to legalise assisted suicide in Britain have been rejected.

The most recent, in 2006 was defeated in the House of Lords by 148 votes to 100.

'We were there as she died'
12 May 06 |  Health
Euthanasia and the law
21 Feb 07 |  Health
Dignitas: Swiss suicide helpers
24 Jan 06 |  Health

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