Comment: Legislation is not the answer for assisted suicide

You can’t legislate for assisted suicide or euthanasia satisfactorily enough for murder not to go unpunished.

By Matthew West

The government won’t consider bringing forward legislation to make assisted suicide legal. This isn’t because of morality, religion or even because of a lack of compassion for the terminally ill. The reason is simple: you can’t legislate for assisted suicide or euthanasia satisfactorily enough for murder not to go unpunished.

Those who support the idea of legislating in favour of assisted suicide will always give you the philosophical argument that it is our choice when to end our own lives and it should be a choice to be able to die with dignity.

They also tend to trash the religious argument that life is a precious gift from God.

I have no real problem with either of these arguments, but they do not take into account reality. And that is where the law steps in.

The existing law on assisting someone to kill themselves is described in the Suicide Act 1961 as “a person who aids, abets, counsels or procures the suicide of another, or attempt by another to commit suicide”. It makes the offence punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

But, just as in the case of murder, motive is everything. The question of why a person helped another end their own life is crucial in the case of assisted suicide, just as the reason why one person killed another is crucial to any murder case.

There is no admission by the government today or by policymakers in general that assisted suicide is socially and morally acceptable, largely because to an awful lot of people it simply isn’t.

What we have been given today is clarity from the director of public prosecutions (DPP) that certain considerations may mean prosecution “is not in the public interest”. That is the job of the DPP. In fact the sole reason for having a director of public prosecutions is to give guidance as to when certain prosecutions may or may not be in the public interest.

Take two different examples we have had recently in which two mothers were tried for ending the lives of their children.

Francis Inglis wasn’t found guilty of assisting in her son’s suicide. She was found guilty of the more serious offence of murder. The reasons for this were several.

Her son was not terminally ill, despite suffering horrific injuries that left him brain damaged. He had not discussed with her what his wishes were in the event that his quality of life was so poor he would rather be dead. She had essentially decided for him. When she administered the lethal dose of heroin that killed him she had already been charged with attempted murder. She also tricked hospital staff into thinking she was someone else.

That she committed murder as an act of compassion was neither here nor there. It was a tragic situation and one can only feel sympathy for her but, act of compassion or not, she made the decision for her son and she was fully aware of what she was doing.

Compare that to the case of Kay Gilderdale, who was found not guilty of murder for helping her daughter to commit suicide.

In this case Mrs Gilderdale had discussed what to do with her daughter before acting. Her daughter had suffered from ME for 17 years. She was paralysed from the waist down, unable to speak, eat or drink and was fed through a tube.

She communicated with her parents through a form of sign language they devised themselves. She had also developed suicidal thoughts, which she published on an online forum.

And she had left a living will as well as a ‘do not resuscitate’ note on her medical records and considered ending her life at Dignitas, the Swiss-based assisted suicide clinic.

These two cases are fundamentally different and in both the juries should and can be rightly pleased that justice was done. There is no postcode lottery of justice, as some in the media tried to suggest at the time. The cases were utterly different and that’s why the laws we have in this area work so well. The only change now is that under this new guidance Mrs Gilderdale may have been spared the additional pain of being tried for murder.

On a slightly more grotesque level, policymakers have to consider that the relatives of a rich aunt might decide to hasten her exit from this life in order to collect their inheritance.

While this might be an unsavoury thought it is one of the fundamental reasons why changing the law on assisted suicide is impractical. Murder could effectively be hidden as assisted suicide.

And which is the more morally repugnant? That people suffer degenerative diseases and die with less dignity than they might have wanted, or that murderers are able to get away with it because they manipulate the law created to allow people to die with that level of dignity that we’d all like?

Of course, what the case of Debbie Purdy and the subsequent guidance from the DPP has provided us with is a third way. Essentially it creates circumstances in which the Crown Prosecution Service can state that prosecution of a certain individual for assisting the suicide of another “is not in the public interest”. That doesn’t make it legal but it does mean accompanying loved ones to Switzerland in order to be with them when they commit suicide is less likely to end in a prison sentence for those left behind.

As always with this subject emotions will run high and I’m entirely sympathetic to the arguments put forward by those who say that they want the right to die with dignity. I watched my mother die from cancer three years ago and had often had philosophical discussions with her prior to her becoming ill about how she would rather die than become so ill that her family had to care for her.

In some ways my family was fortunate that my mother’s illness did not drag on. This might sound heartless but it’s not meant to be. I’m simply grateful she didn’t suffer. If I’m totally honest I’m also grateful I didn’t have to watch her suffer for too long before she died because, as much as I tried to stay positive and lighthearted, every weekend that I spent with her in her final six months broke my heart. Watching my father suffering in his own quiet, dignified way will remain with me for the rest of my life.

And if she had asked me to help her end her life I would like to think I wouldn’t have hesitated to help her. The problem is I simply do not know if I would have been brave enough to.

I’d like to think I would. And I think anyone that does is committing a very courageous final act of love.

But doing any more than has been done today by the DPP, creating a law that makes assisted suicide legal, is utterly impossible.