UK unveils rules on prosecuting assisted suicides

Wed Sep 23, 2009 12:52pm EDT
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By Matthew Jones

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.

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.

"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.   Continued...

<p>Euthanasia campaigner Dr. Philip Nitschke's "suicide kit" is seen during a Reuters interview in London in this May 7, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth/Files</p>