Suicide itself – ‘the right of anyone to take his life’ – is being legitimated by the assisted-suicide campaign.
Spiked | Kevin Yuill
Assisted suicide has hit the headlines once again.
Last week, the UK’s director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, issued guidelines for the prosecution of cases of mercy killings. In response to a House of Lords ruling that the Crown Prosecution Service must give guidance on factors involved in the decision to prosecute someone for helping a person to take their own life, Starmer said: ‘The policy is now more focused on the motivation of the suspect rather than the characteristics of the victim.’ Everyone from Gordon Brown donwards has pronounced on the guidelines and their meanings. Yet the sides in the assisted suicide debate remain as intransigent as ever.
What are we to make of the new guidelines and of this new, somewhat mysterious pronouncement from Starmer? The guidelines are important not only for the very few who make the trip to the Dignitas suicide clinic in Switzerland. Despite appearances, this discussion is not really about them. Of the 134 Britons who have made that trip since 2002, none of the relatives accompanying them has been prosecuted. Even where assisted suicide is legal, the number of people who opt for it is very small – in Oregon, where assisted suicide has been legal since 1997, less than one per cent of the total deaths per year are a result of legal assisted suicide.
But the new guidelines do have an impact on the law, despite Starmer’s protestations to the contrary. Rather than rely on parliament and democratic debate, the guidelines, which have clarified little for prosecutors but have stirred much public debate, further push the case for a change in the law. And they are a danger, not only because they undermine judges and juries in specific cases with sweeping general proclamations, but because they change our perspective on suicide.
How? Starmer’s idea that the focus should be on the motivation of the accused, rather than the situation of the victim, has deep implications. As Saimo Chahal, the lawyer for assisted suicide campaigner Debbie Purdy, who successfully petitioned for clarification in the law, noted: ‘Significantly, the requirement that the victim have a terminal illness, a severe, incurable physical disability or severe degenerative physical condition, as a factor weighing against prosecution has been removed – and rightly so.…The absence of this requirement is clearly consistent with the right of any person to end their life, whether ill, disabled or otherwise.’
Chahal goes too far – but Starmer’s guidelines do indicate how suicide is progressively being legitimated by the assisted suicide campaign. No, this is not a case of the ‘slippery slope’, as hinted at by Gordon Brown and others, concerned that vulnerable people will be encouraged to ‘cease being burdens’ and opt for assisted suicide. Rather, to approve of suicide because of an individual’s assessment that his or her own life is worthless is effectively to approve of all suicides – ‘the right of any person to end their life’, as Chahal put it. And the most honest assisted suicide advocates admit this fact. Full story.