The sanctity of one’s right to choose whether to live or die will forever attract heated argument. Yesterday, the director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, reignited the debate by publishing new guidelines for prosecutors on assisted suicide.I say reignited, but the flame hadn’t actually gone out. Debbie Purdy, who has multiple sclerosis, convinced the House of Lords earlier this year that the guidance was necessary. She wanted to know whether her husband Omar Puente would be prosecuted if he went with her to an assisted dying clinic in Switzerland – and by asking this question, perhaps unwittingly, became the face of the campaign for clarity on assisted suicide.
Starmer’s guidance is therefore welcome, but guidance is what it is. Until legislation exists – either in favour of or against assisted suicide – there will remain a degree of uncertainty as to the legal culpability of those who want to help.
But if parliamentarians are jostled into acting when they sit again in October, one can only hope that the debate does not become mired in the type of vitriol that we still see in another life and death debate: the debate on abortion that rages in the US to this day.
It goes without saying that both debates – culturally and legally – are of massive importance across the world, but credibility on either side can be easily wrecked (see, for example, the flashing ‘Condition Red’ banner above comments on the ‘federal government funding of abortion on demand’ on the US website. If MPs do decide to take on the assisted suicide issue in the Commons in the next year, then they and every pro- or anti-assisted dying group that lobby them would do themselves a favour to act with respect and humility.