Rules on prosecuting assisted suicides unveiled

LONDON (Reuters) - Guidelines to be used in deciding whether to prosecute people who help others commit suicide were published for the first time in Britain on Wednesday to clarify a law challenged repeatedly in the courts.

Multiple sclerosis sufferer Debbie Purdy poses for photographers outside the House of Lords June 2, 2009. REUTERS/Stephen Hird

Family members or close friends who help individuals with terminal illnesses or severe and incurable physical disabilities to kill themselves were unlikely to be prosecuted -- in certain circumstances, according to Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Those circumstances included a clear wish of the person committing suicide that they wanted to die and that the act of assistance was motivated by compassion.

“This policy does not, in any way, permit euthanasia. The taking of life by another person is murder or manslaughter,” Starmer told a news conference.

Starmer, who has discretion on whether the Crown Prosecution Service beings legal proceedings in England and Wales, was told to publish an interim policy on assisted suicides by the Law Lords in July.

That order was triggered after Debbie Purdy, a multiple sclerosis sufferer, won the legal right to know whether her husband would be prosecuted if he helped her travel abroad to die.

Starmer said the published guidelines did not change the law on assisted suicides -- only parliament can do that -- but the document gave an indication as to whether certain action was more or less likely to prompt a prosecution.

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“There are no guarantees against prosecution and it is my job to ensure that the most vulnerable people are protected, while at the same time giving enough information to those people, like Ms Purdy, who want to be able to make informed decisions about what actions they may choose to take,” he said.

Purdy told the BBC after the announcement: “The judiciary has had the courage to at least consider in the 21st century what are things that matter.

“They are differentiating very clearly between malicious encouragement of people to end their lives and support for somebody who has made the considered and informed decision ... to end their life.”

In recent years, an estimated 117 Britons have travelled abroad to die, principally to Switzerland where assisted suicide is legal. Those who travelled with them have run the risk of prosecution in Britain and a potential jail term of 14 years, although in practice no prosecutions have occurred.

The issue of assisted suicides polarises public opinion and the medical profession, which is why Starmer has given Britons until the end of the year to comment on his interim policy. A definitive document will be drawn up in early 2010.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) which represents nearly 70 percent of nurses, has moved to a neutral position from opposition, while the British Medical Association, the body for nearly three quarters of doctors, remains opposed.

Editing by Steve Addison