March 20, 2009 / 11:42 AM / 10 years ago

UK's ex-Health Secretary wants suicide law change

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Former British Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt called on Friday for a change in the law to allow people to take terminally ill patients abroad for assisted suicide without fear of prosecution.

Hewitt has tabled an amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill, backed by more than 100 MPs from different parties, to bring the law into line with what she said was the current practice of prosecutors not to take action.

The law says assisting suicide is a crime that carries a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison.

However, since 1992, almost 100 British citizens have ended their lives at the Dignitas facility in Switzerland — where assisted suicide is legal — without their relatives being prosecuted.

Last month Debbie Purdy, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, lost a legal bid to force the government to clarify the law on assisted suicide to protect her husband from any future action.

She wanted assurances from the Director of Public Prosecutions that her husband would not be prosecuted if he helped her to go to a euthanasia facility abroad.

“In the long term we need a bill to change the law to allow terminally ill, mentally competent adults suffering at the end of their lives the choice of an assisted death, within safeguards, in this country,” Hewitt said.

“In the meantime, I hope that the amendment I have tabled will prompt the long overdue parliamentary debate necessary to bring the law on assisted suicide in line with the practice of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the courts.”

Despite the cross-party support, media reports said the amendment was unlikely to succeed.

However, opponents of assisted suicide said the move was “farcical and tragic,” as the government is actively trying to tighten the law to outlaw Internet sites that encourage suicide.

“The law has an important deterrent effect and that means the cases we see are those involving resolute and self-confident people who haven’t been coerced,” said Peter Saunders, Director of Care Not Killing.

“But take away that deterrent and we would soon start to see cases of abuse and an opening of the floodgates. Make no mistake: this amendment is just a precursor to a more general euthanasia law.”

Dignity in Dying said the current law failed to distinguish between those who were compassionately assisting an adult who wanted to die and those abusing vulnerable people by encouraging suicide.

“The amendment aims to ensure that the law reflects this practice,” said its chief executive Sarah Wooton.

Editing by Steve Addison and Paul Casciato

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