Page last updated at 13:10 GMT, Thursday, 2 October 2008 14:10 UK

MS patient's suicide aid dilemma


Debbie Purdy: 'If my physical ability degenerates so far - the choice won't be there any more'

The High Court has been told of the "dilemma" facing a woman with multiple sclerosis who fears her husband could be prosecuted if he helps her die.

Debbie Purdy, 45, from Bradford, is considering going to Switzerland where - unlike the UK - assisted suicide is legal, if her pain becomes unbearable.

But she wants UK law clarified so she can avoid her husband being prosecuted on his return for assisting her.

Under UK law, helping somebody die carries a sentence of up to 14 years.

"If he is likely to be prosecuted, then she is much more likely to travel abroad to commit suicide sooner rather than later
David Pannick QC

Ms Purdy was diagnosed with primary progressive MS in March 1995. She can no longer walk and is gradually losing strength in her upper body.

She has suggested that at some point she may travel abroad and take a lethal dose of barbiturates prescribed by doctors at a clinic run by Swiss organisation Dignitas.

Ms Purdy wants her husband, Omar Puente, to be at her side when she dies - but fears he may be prosecuted on his return.

The hearing is set to last two days, and judgement is likely to be reserved until a later date.

Going alone

David Pannick QC, appearing for Ms Purdy, told the court: "Her dilemma is that she wants to delay her suicide as long as possible.

"She wants also to avoid the danger of her husband being prosecuted for assisting her.

"If he is likely to be prosecuted, then she is much more likely to travel abroad to commit suicide sooner rather than later."

He said the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) was breaching Mrs Purdy's human rights by denying her the right to respect for her personal and family life.

Lawyers for the DPP deny the accusation.

Before the hearing, Ms Purdy said: "I don't know what's going to happen to me in terms of the progression of my disease, and I don't know that my life will ever become unbearable.

"But I'm facing making a decision before I'm ready to about whether I want to end my life or not."

"I want the right to make the choice."

She wants to know where the director of public prosecutions (DPP) would "draw the line" and prosecute someone who had helped a loved one go abroad to die; whether that is buying the plane tickets, pushing her wheelchair or looking up information.

"Because it's so unclear, we don't know what my husband can do."


Ms Purdy successfully appealed in June for a judicial review in the High Court on the grounds that the DPP had acted illegally by not providing guidance.

The DPP has not prosecuted any relative of the 100 UK citizens who have gone abroad to Dignitas clinics to die.

A law allowing assisted suicide could so easily be exploited or abused
Dr Peter Saunders
Care Not Killing

But the process of how that decision has been reached has not been made clear.

Although Ms Purdy was granted a full hearing, she was told that should not give her any optimism that her arguments would "ultimately succeed".

A Crown Prosecution Service spokesperson said the DPP had no plans to issue further guidance.

"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."

Sarah Wootton, of campaign group Dignity in Dying, which is supporting Ms Purdy, said: "This case is about choice. Debbie should have the option to die at a time of her choosing should she feel her suffering has become unbearable."

But Dr Peter Saunders, of Care Not Killing, said: "It's not against the law to commit suicide - but assisting suicide is a crime.

"And it's a crime because a law allowing it could so easily be exploited or abused."

In 2001 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.

MS woman in right-to-die appeal
06 Jun 08 |  Health
Euthanasia and the law
21 Feb 07 |  Health
Dignitas: Swiss suicide helpers
24 Jan 06 |  Health

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