Page last updated at 23:11 GMT, Wednesday, 10 December 2008

The assisted suicide debate

By Nick Higham
BBC News


Craig Ewert explains his decision in a clip from the programme, courtesy of Sky's Real Lives

The television documentary about Craig Ewert's decision to take his own life, with the help of the Swiss organisation Dignitas, has reignited the debate about assisted suicide.

Provoking such a debate seems to have been one of his aims.

Sky's Real Lives, screened on Wednesday, showed the moment of death of motor neurone disease patient Mr Ewert, 59, of Harrogate, North Yorkshire.

His wife Mary told the BBC: "Craig wasn't interested in this as his personal story, he was interested in people actually coming to grips with death, with the fact of death - I think that's often hidden from us. It's very sanitised.

"He wanted to use his decision and his death to demonstrate what actually happens, so that people could see it was very peaceful, that it was a rational decision on his part."

But the programme and the brouhaha surrounding it have also highlighted the currently uncertain state of the law.

Lost cases

In theory, helping someone to kill themselves is a crime under the 1961 Suicide Act.

Several recent attempts to persuade the courts to change the law have failed.

Diane Pretty had motor neurone disease and Debbie Purdy has multiple sclerosis.

Mrs Pretty went to court in 2001, seeking a guarantee from the director of public prosecutions that if her husband helped her to die, he would not be prosecuted. Mrs Purdy made a similar bid last month.

Both women lost - Mrs Pretty after taking her case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

It's the politicians who are cowardly and who think that this issue is one that is too fraught with dangers for them politically
Debbie Purdy

Yet this week the new DPP, Keir Starmer QC, has sent a pretty strong signal that, whatever the judges decided in the Pretty and Purdy cases, people who help seriously ill or disabled relatives to die will not be charged.

He has decided not to prosecute the parents of Daniel James, the young rugby player who was paralysed from the shoulders down when a scrum collapsed on him.

He tried to commit suicide three times before persuading his parents to help him travel to Switzerland to die.

The DPP decided that, although there was sufficient evidence to charge Mr James's parents, a prosecution would not be in the public interest.

He took the decision partly, he said, because Mr James had been a fiercely independent young man who took his own life even though his parents had tried "relentlessly" to persuade him not to, and partly because he thought a court would be unlikely to send them to prison.

This is not a guarantee - like that sought by Mrs Pretty and Mrs Purdy - not least because circumstances in other cases may be different.

Mr James's parents themselves acknowledged as much in a statement from their solicitor on Wednesday, after a suicide verdict was recorded at an inquest into their son's death.

But the DPP's decision does suggest that prosecution is very far from inevitable or automatic.

It also gives additional ammunition to those who want the law changed. More than 100 Britons are thought to have travelled to Switzerland to die at the Dignitas clinic.

'Hit or miss'

Many will have been helped by friends and family, and the vast majority of those helpers have not been prosecuted.

Mrs Purdy told the BBC that whether anyone was prosecuted was very "hit and miss".

"I think we have a right to know exactly what will incur what penalties," she said.

"It's the politicians who are cowardly and who think that this issue is one that is too fraught with dangers for them politically.

Daniel James
Daniel James was paralysed during a training session

"But the danger for the public is greater and we are saying it must be discussed and they must come to a conclusion that suits the 21st Century because the law they are hiding behind was passed in 1961."

Parliament has already rejected one Private Member's Bill, introduced by Lord Joffe in 2006, which would have allowed people to assist the terminally ill to die.

And there are powerful voices against changing the law, including the prime minister's.

In the words of Dr Peter Saunders, director of the campaign group Care Not Killing: "The danger is that we start to believe in a story that there is such a thing as a life not worth living.

"A change in the law would put pressure on vulnerable people to end their lives so as not to be a burden."

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