Don\’t change the assisted suicide law

Writing in today\’s Observer, Baroness Warnock, a leading expert in medical ethics, backs a change to the law, which currently leaves someone who assists in the suicide of a friend or loved one liable to up to 14 years in prison.

Yes, this is true, it does.

Although the current law is clear that assisting someone to die is illegal, the director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, has produced guidelines to clarify when an individual might not face prosecution. These suggest that relatives acting on compassionate grounds are unlikely to go to jail, but those acting in a professional capacity, such as doctors or nurses, are much more likely to face charges.

Quite, and we have a system that deals with this problem.

For we do in fact want a system that sorts through the various cases. At one end of the spectrum there\’s someone topping Granny for the house and the inheritance. At the other end there\’s that bolus of morphine that shortens a horribly painful life by a day or two.

We\’d like then first to go to jail and the second to face an investigation and then to let it lie.

After his death his parents contacted police to admit that they had helped him achieve his wish to end \”a second-class existence\” by taking him abroad – despite praying to the last, and urging him to change his mind. The police had to investigate and the Jameses underwent three hour-long interviews each by officers days after their son\’s funeral. The case against them was eventually dropped.

Quite. Talking to coppers for three hours isn\’t everyone\’s cup of tea but it seems a fair enough price to pay having taken that momentous decision to aid another in taking their life.

You know, so that we can sort through the Type A cases and the Type B?

Another way of putting this is that we\’ve a system in place already. Police investigation, decision of DPP on whether to prosecute or not, trial by a jury of peers.

Why do we need to change the law?

12 comments on “Don\’t change the assisted suicide law

  1. So that we can live by the rules of law instead of the rule of DPP? You know, that glorious Anglo-Saxon tradition of only making laws about that which is actually illegal? I believe I’ve heard it mentioned round here once or twice.

  2. Like Matthew says. The Executive is not the Legislature. It is not for Keir St;armer QC to decide issues of such importance; rather he should impliment what has been decided overall. If Baroness Warnock had referred to a need for the Legislature to “consider and codify”, rather than “change”, would you be able to agree?

  3. Hard cases make bad laws. This old saw is especially true of assisted suicide, particularly because all three moral codes of the Book make clear that suicide is the ultimate in Despair, the deadliest sin.

    However, as our post-modern society has managed to produce a sophism to apologise for the casual destruction of the unborn child, I daresay that eventually the removal of life from those who have lost all hope – or are no longer able to indicate their wishes – will become acceptable.

  4. It is (currently) illegal. Yet we have some offences where it is considered that there needs to be very careful consideration before certain offences are prosecuted. Violations of s1(1) of the Public Order Act 1936 require the Attorney General’s permission, for example, as do certain contempt of court offences. Noting that the AG is not “the Legislature” either, although they are a member of it.

    The CPS take charging decisions all of the time, yes/no and level of offence, and sometimes the level of bureaucrat is specified in the rules – as an example charging emergency services personnel for HSWA offences committed during ‘heroic acts’ requires the Principle Legal Advisor to make a decision. The DPP is the head of the CPS. Some difficult decisions will require the buck to stop at the top desk. Why does this common sense process cause such an issue? (Noting that this has nothing to do with whether ‘assisted suicide’ should or should not be legal – it is clearly both a serious and a difficult decision – why not the DPP?)

  5. “Talking to coppers for three hours isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but it seems a fair enough price to pay…”

    Talking to them, maybe.

    But since it seems the police now arrest first & leave it up to the CPS to decide later, by which time it’s on your record and your fingerprints and DNA are in the system, maybe it’s not such a small price after all?

  6. But since it seems the police now arrest first & leave it up to the CPS to decide later, by which time it’s on your record and your fingerprints and DNA are in the system, maybe it’s not such a small price after all?

    Quite. And a lot of countries, when you apply for a visa, ask “Have you ever been arrested?” assuming that the previous Labour government had not extended arrestable offences to cover pretty much anything in the UK.

  7. So it’s all right to top granny if she’s poor, but not to top the other one who’s rich?
    Matthew’s remark (1) sounds fine in principle. However, I think a large degree of uncertainty as to whether you’d be prosecuted is in itself the best deterrent.
    Another example of hypocrisy that works in practice: the BMA is furiously opposed to euthanasia but doctors routinely deny IV drips to those carrying around a Do Not Resuscitate card in their pockets.
    The reason why the DPP doesn’t prosecute more cases is because they don’t ask themselves the question “Is he guilty?” but “Can we convict?” Juries tend to look at cases on their individual merits.

  8. what M says. Bad laws intelligently applied are a scary idea – like benevolent dictatorships.

  9. “…a leading expert in medical ethics…”

    Does that mean anything more than that she tries to tell us what to think all the time?

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