A British multiple sclerosis sufferer who hopes to die one day by assisted suicide will learn Thursday whether she can die with her husband by her side.
Debbie Purdy, 46, has been waging a lengthy legal battle to clarify Britain’s ambiguous laws on assisted suicide. Her battle reaches its end Thursday afternoon when Britain’s highest court, the Law Lords, issues a ruling on her appeal. Purdy’s condition is getting worse. She has primary progressive multiple sclerosis, which means her symptoms deteriorate over time. She has said she wants the option to travel abroad to have an assisted death should her condition one day become unbearable. Britain’s current law makes it illegal to help someone commit suicide, and anyone found guilty faces up to 14 years in prison. But it doesn’t make clear at what point that person would face prosecution — whether that includes sitting with that person on the plane to the clinic, opening the door of the car to the airport, or even helping them arrange the trip. What’s your view When is assisted suicide acceptable Purdy has said she wants to die next to her husband, Omar Puente. If she gets no clarity on the law, Purdy has said she will choose to die while her condition is still bearable, because that way she can make the trip unaided. She would leave Puente behind so he would avoid prosecution, she has said. But that would mean Purdy would die alone.
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Purdy lost her case before the High Court last October, and lost her appeal of that judgment in February. The Court of Appeal did imply, however, that Puente would be safe from prosecution if he were to help Purdy with assisted suicide. The judges referred to the case of Dan James, a 23-year-old British rugby player who died in an assisted suicide last year. James had been paralyzed from the neck down in a rugby accident. James’ parents, Mark and Julie James, flew with their son to an assisted suicide clinic in Switzerland. They faced questions on their return to Britain but were not prosecuted. The court said the decision not to prosecute the Jameses “is illustrative not only of the care with which the issue in these cases would be approached, but also an extremely helpful example of the kind of broad circumstances in which … the ultimate decision would be that a prosecution should not be mounted,” according to an excerpt released by Dignity in Dying, the charity that has worked on Purdy’s case. “If the prosecution amounts to an abuse of process, the court will dismiss it,” the court said in its judgment. Dignity in Dying says another positive sign came last month, when the director of public prosecutions conceded that Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights applies to Purdy’s case. Article 8 protects the right to respect for private and family life, and the chief prosecutor said it also extends to the quality of a person’s death. The prosecutor had previously argued that Article 8 does not cover end-of-life decision making, Dignity in Dying said. The charity called that a legal victory for Purdy and said it means her case now rests on whether the state can interfere with a person’s right to make decisions about the quality of their life and death. “Debbie’s legal team will argue that the ban on assisting suicide is not a legitimate interference with an individual’s rights,” Dignity in Dying said. “For this reason, they will argue that the (director of public prosecutions) should set out an explicit prosecuting policy in cases wherein relatives assist a terminally-ill loved one to attain an assisted death in a country where it is legal.” To date, no one who has accompanied a loved one to the Swiss clinic Dignitas has been prosecuted, but they have been questioned by police and threatened with prosecution, according to Dignity in Dying.