British legal system challenged in euthanasia case

A British woman suffering from multiple sclerosis (MS) has challenged the British legal system by demanding clarification on assisted suicide.

Debbie Purdy, 45, from Bradford, wants a guarantee that her husband, Omar Puente, will not be prosecuted if he helps her to end her life.

Ms Purdy was diagnosed with primary progressive MS in March 1995 and now can no longer walk and is gradually losing strength in her upper body.

At some point she wants to travel to Switzerland to take a lethal dose of barbiturates prescribed by doctors at Dignitas but wants her husband to be at her side when she dies.

Ms Purdy is concerned he may be prosecuted on his return to Britain because aiding or abetting a suicide is a crime punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment.

To date the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has not prosecuted any relative of more than 100 UK citizens who have travelled to Dignitas to die but how that decision has been reached has never been made clear.

Ms Purdy successfully appealed in June for a judicial review in the High Court on the grounds that the DPP had acted illegally by not providing guidance and argued earlier this month at a hearing that the lack of clarification was a breach of her human rights.

Sir Ken Macdonald, counsel for the DPP, said the assurance Ms Purdy was seeking could not be given as assisted suicide was illegal - but this is not the first time the issue has been raised in the courts.

In 2001 Diane Pretty, who had motor neurone disease, failed to get immunity from prosecution for her husband if he helped her to die in the UK and several other attempts to legalise assisted suicide in Britain have also been rejected, most recently in 2006.

This is the second high-profile case to challenge Britain's position on euthanasia, while it is not illegal to kill yourself in the UK it is illegal to help someone else to die.

Assisted suicide is legal in Holland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Switzerland and the American state of Oregon.

Earlier this month, the parents of 23-year-old rugby player Daniel James, who was paralysed in a training accident, accompanied him to Zurich to help him commit suicide - the DPP is still deciding whether to press charges.

Baroness Mary Warnock, one of Britain's most powerful moral philosophers, a leading voice on medical ethics and a member of the House of Lords, helped in 2006 to bring a bill to Parliament that would have allowed the families of Ms Purdy and Mr James to help their loved ones die at home instead of paying the $5,000 plus to travel to Switzerland - it was defeated three times after passionate debate by Christian groups.

Baroness Warnock says it seems absurd for the law to say it is alright to help someone die as long as it isn't in Britain and the cases of Debbie Purdy and Daniel James, will mean that the law must be re-examined.

Baroness Warnock says she has sympathy for elderly people who feel they are a burden and that seems to be a very good motive for suicide if that is what they want.

A judgement is expected to be delivered in the High Court this week.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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