Britain to Clarify Prosecution Policy on Assisted Suicide

By Karla Adam
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 23, 2009

LONDON, Sept. 22 -- When Lesley Close arrived back at London's Luton airport from Switzerland six years ago, she nervously scanned the crowd for police officers. She had, after all, just helped her older brother John kill himself -- an act punishable in Britain by up to 14 years in prison.

Lesley, a British citizen, was never charged or even arrested for taking John abroad to end his life, but, according to the letter of the law, she could have been. On Wednesday, responding to a landmark ruling by Britain's highest court this summer, the British government will attempt to cap years of debate over the issue by clarifying the circumstances under which it will prosecute people who help someone to die.

Because assisted suicide is illegal here, many Britons have elected to end their lives in Switzerland, the only country that allows the practice and accepts foreigners in its assisted-suicide clinics. (Belgium and the Netherlands also permit assisted suicide, as do the U.S. states of Oregon and Washington, but they require local residency.)

So far, 125 British residents and 13 U.S. residents have killed themselves in a two-story blue house in Zurich run by Dignitas, a Swiss group that helps terminally ill people die by providing them with a lethal cocktail of drugs.

In May 2003, Lesley Close, her partner, her sister and John's girlfriend aided and abetted in a suicide -- if that is taken to include dressing John, hoisting him out of bed, hailing a cab, helping to wheel him onto an airplane, handing over identification papers and the numerous other little steps needed to get a mute, largely immobile man from Britain to Switzerland.

"He had had enough with living, and he wanted to die before it took everything away," said Lesley, a 52-year-old administrator from Amersham, a market town in southeastern England.

John Close, an accomplished singer and songwriter who worked at a British university, started to notice changes in his health in 2001, when he was 52. Cheerful by disposition, he would suddenly burst into tears, even at work -- a symptom, he would later learn, of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease. In less than two years, he was confined to a wheelchair. He lost the ability to speak and to swallow food.

Lesley quit her job as a sales representative to care full time for her big brother, the man who had taught her how to play the guitar, ride a bike and survive a rugby tackle. One afternoon, typing with one hand, he told her he wanted to die in the Swiss clinic. He remained "entirely determined," she recalled, and though she sometimes found it difficult, she decided to help.

Lesley said she hoped the guidelines to be issued Wednesday "bring peace of mind for people in the position I was in to do certain things without fear of prosecution."

The government's move follows a legal challenge won by Debbie Purdy, who suffers from progressive multiple sclerosis. The House of Lords recently backed her bid for the state to spell out the circumstances in which a person such as Purdy's husband or Lesley Close would be more or less likely to be prosecuted.

Despite high-profile cases and a handful of investigations, no charges have been brought in Britain in relation to Dignitas, prompting some critics to accuse the government of effectively exporting assisted suicide to Switzerland.

A few family members have wondered whether clarification might do more harm than good.

"What frightens me is that people may not have the loophole anymore," said Win Crew, 77, of Liverpool, whose husband, Reg, was the first named Briton to die at the Dignitas clinic.

Keir Starmer, the director of public prosecutions, told the BBC this weekend that factors he would consider in prosecuting included the possibility of financial gain and whether a person had been encouraged or merely assisted in the decision to die. An interim policy will be published Wednesday, followed by a public consultation and a permanent policy next spring.

Penney Lewis, a professor of law at King's College London, said she was surprised that, although Starmer was required by the House of Lords to spell out reasons for which to prosecute people who help loved ones die in Switzerland, he has decided to apply the same considerations to such actions in Britain.

The clarification "starts to look a lot more like legalizing suicide, not just making exceptions for Switzerland," Lewis said.

For her part, Lesley Close's fear of prosecution has faded, but it has never quite disappeared. Like other people in her situation, she is eager to see the prosecution guidelines.

"I'll be ticking things off," she said, "and praying I'm on the good-guy list."

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