UK woman loses assisted suicide appeal

Debbie Purdy and husband Omar Puente pictured outside the High Court in October 2008.
A British woman who suffers from multiple sclerosis has lost her appeal to clarify Britain’s laws on assisted suicide, a charity working with the woman said Thursday.

But the woman did get a strong hint that anyone who helped her travel to a country where assisted suicide is legal would not be prosecuted. Debbie Purdy, 45, had asked the Court of Appeal to clarify Britain’s laws on assisted suicide — an option she has said she wants if her pain one day becomes unbearable. Under the current laws, Purdy says, it is not clear at which point her husband would be breaking the law if he helped her to travel to an assisted suicide clinic. Purdy was appealing an October ruling by the High Court, which also refused to clarify the laws. Purdy suffers from primary progressive multiple sclerosis, in which symptoms become progressively worse over time. She has said she wants the option to travel abroad to have an assisted death should her condition deteriorate. Under Britain’s current law, Purdy’s husband, Omar Puente, could face 14 years in prison if he accompanies her to a country, such as Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal.

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Purdy had asked the High Court judges to tell her at what point Puente would be subject to prosecution — whether it would include helping her into a car, sitting with her on the plane to the clinic, or helping her with her bags. In its judgment Thursday, the appeal court did imply Puente would be safe from prosecution. The judges referred to the earlier 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 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. Purdy said that wording made her feel like she had won her argument, even though she lost the appeal. “I am very grateful for, and respect the ruling of the appeal court,” she said in a statement. “They have done everything they can do to clarify that, given the Dan James judgment, Omar would be unlikely to be prosecuted if he were to accompany me abroad for an assisted death, and we are therefore one step closer to the clarification I need.” Dignity in Dying has said it is important for the British government to distinguish between people who maliciously encourage suicide and those who accompany a loved one abroad to die. Under current law, the 1961 Suicide Act, assisting a suicide is a crime punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment. Anyone who aids, abets, counsels or procures the suicide of another, or an attempt by another to commit suicide, is liable. Dignity in Dying has said it ultimately wants British law changed to allow the terminally ill the choice of assisted death. 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. “The courts have done all they can,” said Sarah Wootton, chief executive of Dignity in Dying. “They make quite clear that only Parliament has the authority to change the law. If there’s no public interest in prosecuting, there must be a public interest in updating the law to remove doubt.”