Woman loses UK High Court case on assisted suicide

A woman with multiple sclerosis has lost her High Court case to guarantee her husband immunity from persecution if he assists her commit suicide. Under UK law, aiding or abetting a suicide is a crime punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment. However, wheelchair bound Debbie Purdy, 45 wanted clarification on how prosecutions for assisted suicides are reached.


Lord Justice Scott Baker said that the law was clear, and while he had sympathy for Purdy only parliament could change the law.


“We cannot leave this case without expressing great sympathy for Ms Purdy, her husband and others in a similar position who wish to know in advance whether they will face prosecution. This would involve a change in the law. The offence of assisted suicide is very widely drawn to cover all manner of different circumstances; only parliament can change it.”

Outside the courtroom, Purdy said she was “really disappointed” with the ruling and would take her case to the Court of Appeal.

“We still don’t know how we can make sure that we stay within the law, because I’m certainly not prepared for Omar to break the law – I’m not prepared for him to face jail.How can we make sure that we act within the law if they won’t tell us in what circumstances they would prosecute?”

She said she was considering travelling to Switzerland to take a lethal dose of barbiturates prescribed by doctors at the suicide clinic Dignitas.
There have so far been no prosecutions of relatives of 101 UK citizens who have gone to the Dignitas clinic.


The UK case has sparked calls for a bill to legalise assisted suicide in Scotland.


Assisted suicide is illegal in many legal jurisdictions but in others, eg, Belgium, Netherlands, Oregon (by the Oregon Death with Dignity Act), and Switzerland, there are circumstances in which it is permitted. It may or may not be required that the assistance is provided by a physician (physician-assisted suicide). 

Under the Oregon Death with Dignity Act policy in Oregon, patients of sound mind can request a prescription for a lethal dose of medication. Two doctors must confirm a diagnosis of terminal illness with no more than six months to live. Two witnesses, one non-doctor unrelated to the patient, must confirm the patient’s request, and the patient must make a second request after 15 days. Oregon’s law specifically applies to Oregon residents only, which prevents residents of other states from seeking life-ending medical care in Oregon.

The only state in the United States that permits physician-assisted suicide is Oregon, though Washington Initiative 1000 will be voted on in Washington State on November 4, 2008.

The Texas Advance Directives Act allows hospitals to withdraw life support after giving 10 days’ notice. 

 Is the illegality of assisted suicide a violation of human rights?

In Debbie Purdy’s case she had unsuccessfully argued that the lack of claification by the DPP was a violation of  her human rights.

In a similar case in 2002, Pretty v. UK, the European Court of Human Rights held that the law pohibiting suicide assistance  (UK Suicide Act 1961. section 2 ) was not a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Concerning the right to life (Article 2), the European Court of Human Rights held:

“Article 2 [the right to life]cannot, without a distortion of language, be interpreted as conferring the diametrically opposite right, namely a right to die; nor can it create a right to self-determination in the sense of conferring on an individual the entitlement to choose death rather than life.”

The European Court of Human Rights also held that the law pohibiting suicide assistance was not a violation of the following rights under the European Convention on Human Rights- freedom from torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (Aritcle3), the right to respect for his private and family life (Article 8), the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Article 9) and the freedom from discrimination on any ground..(Article 14).

What do you think? Is suicide assistance a human right? Are there ethical differences between suicide assisted by a physician and one that is not a physician? Would decriminalisation of assisted suicide lead to mass abuses? 



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