Page last updated at 15:20 GMT, Monday, 1 February 2010

Assisted suicide - for and against

Calls for a change in the law on assisted suicide in England and Wales have reignited the debate on whether the terminally ill should have the right to be helped to die. But who wants what?

Debbie Purdy with her husband outside London's Royal Courts of Justice
Debbie Purdy is concerned her husband could be prosecuted

Campaigner Debbie Purdy, who won a landmark court victory to have the law on assisted suicide clarified in 2009, says the existing guidelines are still not clear enough.

She told the BBC the "fudge in the law" was "a lack of respect for the democratic process".

"This is the only law in the UK where carrying out an act is legal, but assisting in that act is illegal," she said.

The multiple sclerosis sufferer, 46, from Bradford, wants to know if her husband would be prosecuted if he helped her end her life in Switzerland.

In July 2009, Law Lords ruled the director of public prosecution had to specify when a person might face prosecution.

In September Keir Starmer QC published interim guidelines on when prosecutions could occur.

The issue went out to public consultation until 16 December 2009 and permanent policy will be published next spring.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said it had received 4,500 responses to the consultation.

"We apply legislation as it stands, that's the role of the CPS, we don't have a stand beyond the application of the legislation," a spokeswoman said.

Hospital ward
The BMA is opposed to making assisted suicide legal

Dr Vivienne Nathanson, British Medical Association (BMA) head of sciences and ethics, said the association had a firm position.

"We are opposed to the legalisation of assisted dying.

"Assisted dying is illegal in the UK, so doctors are not permitted to help terminally ill competent adults to die," she said.

The BMA said it believed the ongoing improvement in palliative care allowed patients to die with dignity and physician-assisted suicide and voluntary and non-voluntary euthanasia should not be made legal in the UK.

If euthanasia was legalised, there should be a clear demarcation between doctors who would be involved in it and those who would not, it said.

The BMA said that at its annual conference in Belfast on 29 June 2006 doctors voted by an overwhelming majority against legalising physician assisted suicide and euthanasia.

The Royal College of Nursing said it did not support nor oppose a change in the law to allow assisted suicide.

Sir Terry Pratchett
Sir Terry Pratchett revealed he had early onset Alzheimer's in 2007

Sir Terry Pratchett said he was ready to be a test case for assisted suicide "tribunals", which could give people with incurable diseases legal permission to end their lives with help from doctors.

The author, who announced he was diagnosed with a rare form of early onset Alzheimer's disease in December 2007, has long campaigned for a change in the law.

"At the moment if someone assists someone else to commit suicide in this country or elsewhere they become suspect to murder until the police decide otherwise," he told the BBC.

"It would be rather better if a person wishes to die, they could go see the tribunal with friends and relatives and present their case - at least if it happens, it happens with, as it were, authority."

Sir Terry said a legal expert in family affairs and a doctor familiar with long-term illness should also be part of "non-aggressive" tribunals, and measures should be taken to ensure anyone seeking to commit suicide was of sound mind and not being influenced by others.

In September 2009, Sir Terry criticised the interim guidelines issued by the director of public prosecutions on assisted suicide, saying they "made [him] a bit more angry".

Generic elderly woman's hands
Baroness Finlay said licensing assisted suicide would be a dangerous step

Baroness Finlay, an independent peer who is a professor of palliative medicine, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme licensing assisted suicide would be a "very dangerous step" because it would remove protection and "suck all sorts of people in".

"Look at what happened in other countries, for instance in Oregon - the number of assisted suicide has gone up fourfold - if that is translated to Britain, we are not talking about a small number, we are talking about a thousand a year," she said.

She said sufferers had good days and bad days and changed their mind about assisted suicide.

If the UK "ever went down that road" it would be important legislation fell under the Ministry of Justice, not the Department of Health," she added.

"The difficulty is, if healthcare is part of it, you are actually getting doctors to take shortcuts in care, and with financial measures that's going to mount."

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said any change to the law in this area was an issue of individual conscience and a matter for parliament to decide.

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