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Dignity in Dying hails guidelines as ‘victory for common sense and compassion’

Now the law must be changed to provide a safeguarded means of assisted dying

Today the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Keir Starmer QC, published his final guidelines on factors for and against prosecuting cases of assisted suicide. Dignity in Dying will study the guidelines in detail and provide a full statement in due course. Below is our initial reaction:

Sarah Wootton, Chief Executive of Dignity in Dying, said:

“The guidelines are a victory for common sense and compassion. The DPP’s guidance represents a significant breakthrough for choice and control at the end of life for those who feel they are suffering unbearably. Critically, the guidelines recognise the difference between assisting someone to die out of compassion, at their request, and a malicious or self-serving act which results in the death of another.

“The guidelines, streamlined from the interim version, are welcome in clarifying the law for prosecutors and police, but they do not change the law, something only Parliament can do. This means that law-abiding citizens are still criminalised for acting out of compassion at a loved one’s request to die. “

Debbie Purdy, who won her battle to clarify the law on assisted suicide in a House of Lords ruling last July, said:

“I am still overwhelmed and delighted by this victory. It was the right decision by the Law Lords, and people I meet every day in the street tell me how glad they are that we won. Omar and I can now get on with our lives. Because I will know the likely consequences of any decisions I choose to make about my death, I won’t have to make those decisions early. I will continue to campaign for assisted dying to be legal in the UK.”

Dignity in Dying warned that the guidelines do not provide a safeguarded means of assisted dying and continue to press the case for an assisted dying law in the UK. Sarah Wootton said:

“The guidelines do not provide a safeguarded means of assisted dying. As a result assisted dying is only really an option for those who can afford to pay the travel costs and Dignitas fees. At present we inadvertently condone people travelling abroad to die or attempting suicide at home in secret. A safeguarded assisted dying law would allow dying adults to make an informed decision following open discussions with loved ones and health professionals.”

“Unsubstantiated fears of a change in the law need to be balanced against the evidence from other countries which have legalised and regulated assisted dying and the cost of not changing the law for those that are forced to take matters into their own hands. There is near unanimous agreement that all cases of assisted dying should be investigated, but an investigation and possible prosecution after someone has died is no substitute for up-front safeguards. A safeguarded assisted dying law where cases are considered when someone asks for help to die rather than after they have died, would do far more to protect against abuse or coercion.

“Assisted dying legislation is something that society wants, that common sense demands – and those patients, families and loved ones facing tough choices deserve. Therefore Dignity in Dying will continue to fight for a change in the law.”


Notes to editors:

Sarah Wootton, Chief Executive of Dignity in Dying, and Debbie Purdy will be available for interview at Millbank studios following the publication of the guidance.

To arrange interviews with Debbie or Sarah please call Jo Cartwright on 07725433025. For interviews with case studies, MPs, Peers, medics or legal experts please call the Dignity in Dying office on 0207 479 7737.

Background to the guidelines:

Last July, the Law Lords decided in Debbie Purdy’s favour in her bid to clarify the law on assisted suicide. Debbie had fought for clarity since 2006 through the High Court and the Court of Appeal, before the House of Lords heard her case. The House of Lords ruling instructed the DPP to provide a policy outlining factors for and against prosecution when assisting a loved one to die, 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.

Dignity in Dying campaigns for the legalisation and regulation of assisted dying – not assisted suicide, euthanasia or ‘mercy’ killing:

In assisted dying and assisted suicide the patient takes the final step and administers life-ending medication. Euthanasia or ‘mercy’ killing is when someone directly ends someone else’s life for compassionate reasons – with the person’s consent (voluntary) or without it (non-voluntary). Assisted dying and assisted suicide is an offence under the 1961 Suicide Act and carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years. Euthanasia and ‘mercy killing’ are regarded by the law as murder and carry a mandatory life penalty.

Assisted dying only applies to terminally ill adults (as is the case in the US states of Oregon and Washington), unlike assisted suicide (permitted in Switzerland), which is when chronically ill and/or disabled people can be given help to end their lives. Assisted dying is about giving dying adults greater control over the time and manner of their death if they feel their suffering is unbearable.

We do not support assisted suicide on demand, and we never provide information on how to end life. To do so is against the law and while we may not agree with the current law, we are committed to upholding it. In its place, we would like a specific assisted dying law within up-front safeguards to determine diagnosis and metal competence. We also believe that assisted suicide and euthanasia/’mercy’ killing should remain prohibited, but the law should allow flexibility in prosecuting and sentencing dependent on the circumstances of each case. The Director of Public Prosecutions’ interim guidelines provide such flexibility for the offence of assisted suicide, but none exists for the offence of murder.

Dignity in Dying:

Dignity in Dying is the leading organisation in the UK for greater patient choice at the end of life.

Dignity in Dying has more than 25,000 active supporters.

    Dignity in Dying supported Debbie Purdy’s case for the DPP to clarify his prosecuting policy on assisted dying.

    Surveys consistently show that 80% of the UK population would like to see a change in the law.