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AM’s legal challenge raises difficult questions for society

As a result of a stroke, AM is unable to end his life without assistance. His legal team have launched a High Court challenge to clarify whether medical and legal staff, acting out of compassion, would be prosecuted if they assisted AM with his wish to die, for example, by providing him with information on what care might be available if he were to stop eating and drinking, or by providing assistance in making the arrangements to be assisted to die in Switzerland.

Dignity in Dying said:

“AM’s request to die presents society with difficult questions, for which there are no easy answers. The Director of Public Prosecution’s (DPP’s) guidelines effectively forgive compassionate amateur assistance to die, but the guidelines make it very clear that assistance to die from medical professionals is likely to result in prosecution.

“Dignity in Dying campaigns for a change in the law so that terminally ill, mentally competent adults can have the option of assistance to die within strict legal safeguards. This change in the law would not give AM the choice of an assisted death as he is not terminally ill, but severely disabled. It would be impossible not to feel sympathy for AM and his family, yet we also understand that his ability to control his death must be balanced with concerns about the impact of legalising assisted suicide on potentially vulnerable groups.

“This case is important as it is seeking to establish what information or assistance compassionately motivated doctors, lawyers and other professionals may provide to an individual. At present there is a real lack of clarity in this area, which causes genuine problems for patients and doctors. People are taking control at the end of their lives, often in desperate and dangerous ways because they cannot talk openly to professionals about their desire for assistance to end their lives. We will watch the progression of the case with interest to see how these issues are resolved.”

Dignity in Dying would like to see clear guidance for doctors from their professional bodies setting out how they can respond to such requests from their patients.


Notes to editor:

About Dignity in Dying:

– Dignity in Dying campaigns for greater choice, control and access to services at the end of life. It advocates providing terminally ill adults with the option of an assisted death, within strict legal safeguards, and for universal access to high quality end-of-life care.
– Dignity in Dying has over 25,000 supporters and receives its funding entirely from donations from the public.
– The British Social Attitudes Survey 2010 found that 92% of non-religious and 71% of religious people support assisted dying. This relates to overall support of 82%.

DPP policy context:

In July 2009 the Law Lords decided in Debbie Purdy’s favour in her bid to clarify the law on assisted suicide. The House of Lords ruling instructed the DPP to provide a policy outlining factors for and against prosecution when assisting a person to commit suicide, at their request.
The 1961 Suicide Act specifically gives the DPP the power of discretion over whether to bring a prosecution. If there is sufficient evidence, the DPP has to determine whether a prosecution is in the public interest. The DPP issued interim guidelines in September 2009 at the same time as launching a public consultation, and issued a final version of the prosecuting policy in February 2010.

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