Thursday, October 30, 2008

Assisted Suicide

Debbie Purdy has failed in her attempt to have the law on assisted suicide changed, she fears that if her husband helps her to visit the Swiss clinic, run by Dignitas, he may face prosecution when he returns after her suicide. She has a particularly aggressive form of Multiple Sclerosis. The judge stated that it was a question for parliament not the courts.

An average of two Britons each year travel to Switzerland to die in the way they choose, and until now nobody has faced prsecution upon return to the UK. However it seems that the family of the young rugby player who went there to die after being paralysed are being investigated by the CPS.

Part of the problem is deciding what constitutes assisting a suicide. Buying a plane ticket to Switzerland for your loved one? Holding his or her hand while they die? It doesn't have to actually be as stark as giving them the lethal dose of drugs.

The question of assisted suicide crops up on a regular basis and, while I believe it to be wrong, I have every sympathy for those who feel it to be their only option. What I do not want is for the law to be changed so that we, society, are consenting to people commiting suicide. I am extremely sympathetic to the authorities turning a blind eye in cases where it is obvious that the person who went to Switzerland was was fully aware of what they were doing and made the decision themselves. To hold the hand of a loved one as they die, be it suicide or not, should not be a prosecutable offence.

For several years I worked for the Motor Neurone Disease Association and a few years ago a Liverpool man with MND went to Switzerland to die. This caused a huge media furore similar to that this week around Debbie Purdy. I saw the other side of the impact this had on people living with MND. At that time nobody with MND that I spoke to wanted to take that route themselves. Most of them had the view that their lives were being cut short becaue of MND and they didn't want to shorten it any further. Many people with MND and their families found the whole thing terribly distressing. That side of the argument is rarely covered by the press.

As with any of these things there are reactions and repercusions for years to come that affect those left behind after a suicide. Could I have done more? Could I have encouraged him/her to stay a few more weeks or months? What about the immense feeling of guilt that may be faced by the loved one left behind? I've no doubt people like Debbie Purdy will be discussing all these things with her husband. But we need to be very careful that we look deeper than the media coverage that makes it all sound so clean and compartmentalised.

One of the more worrying aspects of this recent publicity is the position of Ludwig Minelli, the founder of Dignitas. It seems he wants the option of suicide extending beyond the terminally ill to people such as manic depressives. As ever one of the worrying things about legalising assisted suicide is how it would then extend into areas for which the original law was never intended.

And finally, we no longer tolerate the state taking the life of murderers so it seems to me even less acceptable for the state to condone the taking of innocent life whether by your own hand or not.

No comments: