Call for euthanasia law debate

Britain should consider altering its assisted suicide law, the former director of public prosecutions (DPP) has argued.

Sir Ken Macdonald said it was not in the public interest that those involved in assisted suicide in Britain should be prosecuted.

Adding to the debate on the future of the law, he remarked: "The danger is that the public gets the perception that these decisions are being made purely by prosecutors and the will of parliament is being subverted.

"It is in these circumstances that I think we might conclude that the law is beginning to fall behind what people think is reasonable and therefore needs to be looked at again."

He was commenting as multiple sclerosis sufferer Debbie Purdy took her case to the House of Lords over concerns that her husband may be prosecuted for helping her to die if he travels with her to Switzerland - where euthanasia is legal - to die at the specialist Dignitas clinic.

Any law change could have significant implications for wills, including the creation of living wills that may stipulate that a person should have treatment withheld or be aided to die early should they be incapacitated or left in a vegetative state through accident or illness.

Irrespective of any law change, people can gain from making a will, which can be done without lawyers by using Lawpack's will services.

Labour peer Lord Falconer has attempted to introduce a legal amendment to the coroners and justice bill in the House of Lords, legalising acts of assisting suicide overseas.

He wrote an article for the Times in which he argued people like Mrs Purdy's husband should be immune from prosecution if he helps her go to Switzerland to die.

Considering the present position regarding such trips to the Alpine country, he stated: "The police often conclude that a crime has indeed been committed but the Crown Prosecution Service decides not to prosecute, largely on compassionate grounds."

Describing this as "sensible", he suggested that the position taken by the DPP should simply be formalised into law.

Of course, this proposal is a long way from actually becoming law. It would have to be approved by both the Lords and the House of Commons, assuming in the latter case that the current political maelstrom does not lead to an election anyway.

If, however, a change does take place to the law, it may reinforce the importance of taking out a will.

Just over 100 Britons have gone to Switzerland to die at Dignitas and most people will not plan to end their lives this way. But people will die in all sorts of ways and at all sorts of times, usually in older age but not always.

While some may be able to head off to Switzerland and plan exactly how and when they will meet their end, most will not and some may leave things too late to make a will. The consequences could be that inheritances are not distributed as the decreased would wish and that acrimonious disputes could arise.

The issue of euthanasia is a contentious one. There may be all kinds of moral and ethical arguments, as well as practical ones. But for those wondering whether or not to make a will and with no plans to go down that road, it could be quite tragic if they made no planning at all for one issue concerning death that everyone should plan.

Written by Christopher Evans

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Published on: June 4, 2009

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