Page last updated at 16:57 GMT, Friday, 17 October 2008 17:57 UK

'It is a desperately sad case'

By Emma Wilkinson
Health reporter, BBC News

Daniel James
Daniel James was a promising rugby player before his accident

Daniel James is not the first Briton to travel to Switzerland to take advantage of liberal laws on assisted suicide - or the first case to hit the headlines.

Earlier this month, 45-year old Debbie Purdy who has multiple sclerosis, went to the High Court to ask for clarification on the law on assisted suicide should she choose to travel abroad to end her life.

The debate around such cases is highly emotive and can produce strong depth of feeling on both sides.

But the news police are investigating the death of a 23-year-old paralysed rugby player who travelled to a Swiss assisted suicide clinic may produce particularly strong feeling.

Daniel, who had played rugby for the England Under 16s, suffered a collapsed spine during a training session last year leaving him paralysed.

His parents said that their son had tried "several" times to kill himself before he "gained his wish".


Dr Richard Nicholson, editor of the Bulletin of Medical Ethics and a retired GP, said the public may react differently to the idea of a young man with paralysis killing himself to an older person with a terminal illness such as cancer but from an ethical point of view the cases are similar.

"Firstly it depends how you define a terminal condition," he said.

It raises questions about why this young man felt so desperate he needed to take his life
Dr Peter Saunders, Care Not Killing Alliance

"This young man had a condition which would eventually lead to his death and the timing of his death would be related to the level of medical intervention he had to keep him alive."

He said that people do not usually expect people who are so young to want to kill themselves.

"At that age, one would want to know if he was depressed and if that was adequately assessed and treated because that would be a very high probability for a young person, after an accident, becoming aware of how limited their life is."

But Dr Nicholson added that from an ethical point of view he could not see much difference between the case of Daniel and an older person with a terminal illness, provided they were of "sound mind".

Slippery slope

Dr Peter Saunders, campaign director of the Care Not Killing Alliance, said this desperately sad case highlighted the "slippery slope" of assisted dying legislation.

"First it is people with motor neurone disease who have two or three years to live, then people who conditions such as multiple sclerosis who may have a long life expectancy and then this young man with an injury which has left him profoundly disabled.

"It raises questions about why this young man felt so desperate he needed to take his life."

We are opposed to all forms of assisted dying in every situation
British Medical Association

He added: "We normally regard suicide in young people as an absolute tragedy and do everything in our power to prevent it and why should that be different in a disabled person."

Dr Saunders pointed out an article published recently in the British Medical Journal showed that one in four people wanting to have an assisted suicide in Oregon had undiagnosed depression.

Sarah Wootton, chief executive of Dignity in Dying said the case of Mr James demonstrated, once again, that even though assisted suicide was illegal in this country, it was happening.

Dignity in Dying want terminally ill, mentally competent adults to have the option of an assisted death, subject to legal safeguards.

"Dan James would not have been eligible for an assisted death under this sort of legislation, but if it were in place, requests for help to die could be expressed openly to doctors rather than made to relatives behind closed doors," she said.

"People such as Dan James with non-terminal conditions, who expressed a wish to die, could openly discuss their concerns and be given greater support managing their conditions."


To date 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.

I would draw a distinction between [Daniel James' case] and someone who had already entered the dying process
Edward Turner

A spokesperson for the British Medical Association said they would not draw a distinction between the different cases.

"We are opposed to all forms of assisted dying in every situation."

Edward Turner, knows the difficulty of making decisions about assisted death first hand.

His mother, Dr Anne Turner, travelled to Switzerland to die after being diagnosed with a rare degenerative brain disorder.

He wants to see a change in the law to allow assisted suicide for terminally ill patients.

But he added: "I would draw a distinction between [Daniel James' case] and someone who had already entered the dying process."

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