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MS patient wins assisted suicide case

Legal history was made on Thursday when the Lords ruled that the law on assisted suicide 'must be clarified'. Disability rights campaigners and pro-life groups say they fear this could lead to making euthanasia legal in the UK.

Debbie Purdy, 46,  who suffers from Multiple Sclerosis took her case to the Law Lords because she said she  wanted to know if her husband would be prosecuted if he helped her go to the Dignitas assisted dying clinic in Switzerland. Five Law Lords ruled the Director of Public Prosecutions must specify when a person might face prosecution.

In a summary of their decision, the Law Lords said: "Everyone has the right to respect for their private life and the way that Ms Purdy determines to spend the closing moments of her life is part of the act of living.

"Ms Purdy wishes to avoid an undignified and distressing end to her life. She is entitled to ask that this too must be respected."

The Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer said he would publish an interim policy on when prosecutions could occur by September before putting the issue out to public consultation. Permanent policy will be published next spring.

Ms Purdy said the Law Lords' decision was "a huge step towards a more compassionate law".

But disability rights campaigners and pro-life groups have said they are very concerned that the ruling is the first step towards making euthanasia legal in the UK.

Simon Gillespie, chief executive of the MS Society, said: "There are 100,000 people with MS across the UK and most will live about as long as any of us. The key to living well with MS is getting the right care and support from the point of diagnosis, including palliative care when it's needed."

Phyllis Bowman, executive officer of Right To Life, said the group would be consulting its lawyers about what action it could take.

"Much as we sympathise with Ms Purdy, we are extremely concerned about the manner in which this will leave the vulnerable - that is the disabled, the sick, and the aged. Without exception, every disability rights group in the country, are completely opposed to any changing of the laws on assisted suicide and euthanasia."

Paul Tully, SPUC general secretary, said: "This judgment is plainly directed at getting the law changed, despite the insistence by several of the judges that that is not their purpose. None of the five judges suggests that it is wrong in general to help suicidal people with disabilities or degenerative conditions to kill themselves - and one suggests that bankruptcy or the grief of bereavement can be equally good reasons to commit suicide. Another of the Law Lords argues that some, people assisting suicide should be commended for their criminal actions."

The judgment requires the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to issue guidance on when he will or will not prosecute those who criminally assist suicide. The offence under the Suicide Act covers a person who "aids, abets, counsels or procures" the suicide of another. The judgment directs that the new policy should cover "a case such as that which Mrs Purdy's case exemplifies".

Not only is the ruling dangerous but it is also unclear. Paul Tully said: "The judgment reflects the context of a relative giving someone travel assistance to go to Switzerland or other place where assistance to commit suicide might be regarded as legal. However, the judges don't make clear, for example, whether they think those who encourage a suicide, rather than just assist the process, should be prosecuted. It is unclear what guidance is expected of the DPP on such points.

"Most people with long-term disabilities, degenerative diseases or terminal illness do not seek to commit suicide, yet their lives could be undermined by this judgment. They may feel under pressure to kill themselves because they think they are a burden on others.

"The ruling fails to recognise the social problem of suicide, which currently affects between 5,000 and 6,000 families a year in Britain. This number could grow very substantially as a result of this ruling.

"One judge says he thought no-one would support a prosecution of parents who helped their disabled son to commit suicide. But this view fails to balance sympathy for the relatives of a suicidal person with the need to affirm the worth of people with disability. It also appears to show ignorance of demands from disability activists that their right to life must be upheld."