Comment: We need legislation, not guidance

The director of public prosecutions should never have been put in this position. Parliament is abstaining from its responsibility.

By Ian Dunt

Today’s new guidance on assisted dying is a step in the right direction, but until we change the law in this country we won’t have a satisfactory resolution to the ugliness which can overwhelm the final days of life.

Without one, we are left with a retrospective assessment. At the moment the person who wishes to die and their helper – usually a family member or lover – commits the act, they will not really know if there will be trouble. What they are doing remains illegal.

After today’s guidance, they are very unlikely to be prosecuted. They never really were. The grey area of the law was there for a reason. People – including those who occupy the legal profession – empathise with these situations profoundly. It’s hard to reach the age of 40 without some experience of a degrading and drawn-out death in the family, or a friend’s family. So the grey area was allowed to thrive. People would not be prosecuted. The law would basically turn a blind eye.

There are several reason why that is unacceptable. On a philosophical level, it does not recognise the individual’s sovereignty over his or her body. Your life is your own. You decide when to end it, if you wish, and if you are ill or weak, you will need help. Even if not, you will want the company of your loved ones. The state has no right to interfere, and there is no moral reason you should have to keep looking over your shoulder.

Also, it is deeply unfortunate for society and the legal system to decide an action is socially and morally acceptable but for it to remain illegal. The law functions as a moral signifier. If the action should not be prosecuted, it should not be illegal.

But practical issues are always more important than philosophical ones.

The uncertainty that surrounds the grey legal area means that people wishing to end their lives have something else to worry about. Most will have never broken a law in their life. They shouldn’t have to worry, during this, the toughest moment of their lives. They shouldn’t even have to fly to a strange country to die in a room they have never been in before. They should be able to die at home, painlessly, at a time of their choosing, with their friends and family around them.

In the detached world of legal analysis the thoughts and feelings of people on the ground play little role. All law recognises is action and rightly so. But these things do matter, especially in this case.

The only way to accomplish this is legislation. But government despises having to make these sorts of decision. They rarely win votes, and they certainly lose them.

And yet, this is the only way to grant people approaching the end of their lives the dignity they deserve. The director of public prosecutions’ guidance is a bandage, when we need surgery. He has been put in an impossible position because of the impotence of our politicians. This was never his job, and he shouldn’t have had to do it. It is parliament’s job.

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