Britain to consider motive in deciding prosecution for assisted suicide

By Karla Adam
Friday, February 26, 2010

LONDON -- Prosecutors on Thursday said they would consider the issue of motive in cases of assisted suicide before deciding whether to bring charges, in an attempt to clarify how the judiciary will handle an issue that has generated intense controversy in Britain.

The new rules do not change the law here -- assisted suicide is still illegal, punishable by up to 14 years in prison -- but they do provide the public with guidance on which cases are likely to be brought to court.

The Crown Prosecution Service, for instance, would be less likely to charge a suspect who was "wholly motivated" by compassion and reported a suicide to the police. Conversely, it would be more likely to prosecute a suspect who was paid for assisting in a suicide or who was acting as a medical or health-care professional.

In recent months, a string of high-profile cases has highlighted the moral ambiguity in cases of assisted suicide and mercy killings. A BBC presenter, Ray Gosling, was arrested last week after he confessed -- during a program aired on the BBC -- to having once suffocated a lover who was terminally ill with AIDS. Another Briton, Kay Gilderdale, was acquitted of attempted murder after helping her daughter, who suffered from myalgic encephalomyelitis, take her own life.

In the United States, guidelines for prosecution in assisted suicide cases vary from state to state. The Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that it was up to states to regulate medical practice, including assisted suicide. Oregon and Washington permit the practice, but they require local residency.

Keir Starmer, the director of public prosecutions in Britain, said in a statement Thursday that Britain's new guidelines do not open the door for mercy killings. But, Starmer said, "the policy is now more focused on the motivation of the suspect rather than the characteristics of the victim."

Debbie Purdy, a multiple sclerosis sufferer in West Yorkshire, forced the clarifications after a legal challenge in which she sought to learn the circumstances under which her husband would be prosecuted if he were to help her die.

After an extensive survey on the issue, Starmer and the Crown Prosecution Service outlined 16 mitigating factors in favor of prosecution and six against it.

"I'm exceptionally happy he clearly made a difference between compassionate support and malicious encouragement," Purdy said in an interview. "Now I can live my life until it becomes unbearable, and then I can ask for help, if that's what I want to do."

Purdy and other campaigners still insist that assisted suicide should be legalized, but legal experts say that outcome is unlikely anytime soon. Writing in the Daily Telegraph on Wednesday, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that changing the law could result in pressure on the frail and vulnerable to end their lives, and that, in any event, "the case for a change in the law is now weaker" following the release of the new guidelines.

Penney Lewis, a professor of law at King's College London, said the guidelines did not address several important issues. For instance, there was no reference to the condition or level of suffering experienced by the person who is assisted in a suicide.

"They don't appear to address the question of what to do with people who aren't terminally ill or disabled, if they want to use the guidelines," she said. "What about people who want to die because they are severely depressed?"

Lewis also noted that unlike other places that permit assisted suicide, including Belgium and the Netherlands, there was no mention of a requirement of local residency in Britain's guidelines.

"If the government doesn't think people will come here, they are naive," she said. "They might wait awhile to see how it's working, but they will come."

Starmer said the guidelines offered no guarantee of immunity and that each case will be judged on its own merits. "It is not a tick-box exercise," he said.

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