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Victims of the Suicide Prohibition: Mark & Julie James

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Debbie Purdy may be about to get an answer to her legal question. But probably not.

Mark and Julie James, the parents of British rugby player Dan James, are under investigation for helping their son to end his life. Dan James travelled to Switzerland last month to end his life. How, exactly, his parents may have “assisted” his quest has not been released. The case may – or may not – shed light on how the British legal system will treat those who “assist suicide” in incidental ways. If the Jameses are prosecuted, that is one kind of answer. If the Jameses are not prosecuted, however, it is no assurance for Debby Purdy’s husband.

Update: authorities have declined to prosecute Mr. and Mrs. James. (Thanks, Steven.)

The QC, Kier Starmer, is quoted as saying:

This is a tragic case involving as it does the death of a young man in difficult and unique circumstances. While there are public interest factors in favour of prosecution, not least of which is the seriousness of this offence, I have determined that these are outweighed by the public interest factors that say that a prosecution is not needed.

I would point to the fact that Daniel, as a fiercely independent young man, was not influenced by his parents to take his own life and the evidence indicates he did so despite their imploring him not to. I send my condolences to Daniel’s family and friends. [Emphasis mine.]

Starmer seems to articulate a rule that it’s okay to assist in a suicide as long as one does not influence the decedent to commit suicide, and as long as one “implores” the decedent not to do it. Precedent based on apparent attitude and feeling seems strange to me. In addition, Daniel’s act wasn’t criminal – even if his parents had influenced him to commit suicide, “influencing” someone to do something that is not a crime is a strange sort of crime. It does seem cruel and impolite – even I don’t go around influencing people to commit suicide (quite the opposite, despite my belief that suicide is often rational) – but the requirement that those assisting a suicide must be, at the same time, fighting against the suicide, seems strange to me.

Perhaps it matters that it’s the parents or caretakers doing, or not doing, the influencing. Then it is a matter of undue influence or improper use of one’s authority. A regular person may influence another to have sex with him, and it is not a crime – but if a person in power (doctor, lawyer, caretaker, parent) uses his power to influence another (patient, client, charge, child) to commit the same sexual act, it may rise to the level of a tort or even a crime – almost as if physical force were used.

But nobody seems to be talking about autonomy here.

At any rate, it’s not much guidance for Debby Purdy.

Written by Sister Y

October 17, 2008 at 4:48 pm

Debbie Purdy, "Death Plants," and the Suicide Prohibition

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Catherine Bennett writes a forceful article addressing Debbie Purdy’s battle to clarify Britain’s law regarding assisted suicide (“Let this woman die as she chooses, not in a death plant“).

Bennett argues that forcing people to die in a “corporate” manner rather than as they choose – that is, according to the religious whims of other people – is barbaric. And it is doubly awful to force dying people to travel to creepy “death plants” in Zurich, rather than allowing them to die peacefully in their own homes.

Bennett is too optimistic, however, about the prospects for suicide in able-bodied people. She writes:

The whole country now knows that Ms Purdy, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, has thought in detail about when and how she wishes to die. When the pain of her illness becomes intolerable, she would like to have the choice, as the able-bodied do, of taking her own life. [Emphasis mine.]

I think one of the biggest problems for those who favor an institutional right to suicide is this tendency for non-suicidal people to assume that suicide is a simple thing to accomplish. I think many people favor a right to suicide – but they wrongly assume that able-bodied people today currently enjoy a meaningful right to suicide. It’s not true. Reliably lethal means of committing suicide are difficult to acquire, especially means, such as barbiturates, that are not violent and traumatic to administer. If a suicide is “caught” before death has occurred, he will be forcibly restrained and brought back to life. If he suffers severe brain damage from the ordeal, he will be maintained on life support, despite his clear wish to refuse this sort of “life-saving” treatment.

The truth is that no one has a right to suicide, either in Britain, or in the United States. Suicide may not be a crime, but as a practical matter, it is prohibited all the same.

Written by Sister Y

October 5, 2008 at 5:25 am

Victims of the Suicide Prohibition: Debbie Purdy

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There are certain situations where a right to effective, comfortable assisted suicide might actually be pro-life. Such is the case of Debbie Purdy, the British woman with multiple sclerosis who recently won the right to a hearing to clarify the law on whether her husband would be prosecuted for assisting her suicide should she need his help.

Stories on Debbie Purdy’s struggle over the years reveal that her reason for wanting a guarantee of assisted suicide is that, while she loves life and wishes to continue living until her pain becomes unbearable, by then she will no longer be capable of ending her life without assistance. She is concerned that, if she waits and requires assistance to die, her husband will be prosecuted for attempted suicide. From The Guardian in 2004:

Assisting suicides carries a maximum 14-year sentence in Britain, one of the few European countries where it is still a crime. Purdy, like her 55,000 fellow members of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, believes this is wrong. ‘The only thing that will improve the quality of my life now is a change in the law, so I don’t have to be thinking about what I’m going to have to do by myself. If that no longer becomes the biggest question in my life, then I can start thinking about overcoming the symptoms I cope with.’

[Purdy] considered going to Holland, where euthanasia for the terminally ill has been legalised. But patients need to have been registered with a Dutch doctor for two years before they qualify for medical assistance that would bring their lives to an end.

Purdy’s hopes for a law change look slim, at least for now. ‘People want to bury their heads in the sand on this issue. The other day I heard Linford Christie say “oh they could find a cure”. That’s just grabbing at straws. That’s denial.’

The prosecutor characterized Purdy’s case as “unarguable” because Britain lacks a specific policy on assisted suicide and has no obligation to produce one. Purdy has said that she is pleased to get a hearing, and is hopeful that assisted suicide will one day be legal in the UK.

A British forced life group, Care Not Killing, responds that assisted suicide should remain a criminal act:

The key issue here remains whether the law should be changed for the very small number of people who press for assisted suicide. Our view is that in order to protect others from exploitation it should not be.

In other words, sorry Debbie Purdy, but you must suffer for our values that you do not share.

Written by Sister Y

June 12, 2008 at 11:17 pm