Debbie Purdy: ‘We’ve got our lives back’

Author: By Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor

The 46-year-old campaigner, who has multiple sclerosis, was “ecstatic”
after the peers unanimously supported her call for the Director of Public
Prosecutions to spell out the circumstances in which her husband or someone
in a similar position might face prosecution for helping a loved one end
their life abroad.

Having lost twice in the High Court and Court of Appeal, yesterday’s decision
brought huge relief. Flanked by her husband, the Cuban violinist Omar
Puente, and to cheers from her supporters, Mrs Purdy said after the ruling: “I’m
ecstatic. I am eagerly awaiting the DPP’s policy publication so that we can
make sure what we do does not risk prosecution. I think people are beginning
to realise now that this is not about a right to die; it is about a right to
live.

“It feels like everything else doesn’t matter and now I can just be a
normal person. It’s terrific. It gives me my life back. We can live our
lives. We don’t have to plan my death.”

Responding to the ruling, the DPP Keir Starmer, QC, said prosecutors would
start work immediately to produce an interim policy by September, followed
by a public consultation before the final policy is published next spring. “This
is a difficult and sensitive subject and a complex area of the law,” he
said. “However, I fully accept the judgment of the House of Lords. The
Crown Prosecution Service has great sympathy for the personal circumstances
of Mrs Purdy and her family.”

Video: Debbie Purdy makes legal history

The decision will bring relief to scores of people facing similar dilemmas.
More than 100 UK citizens with terminal illness or facing intolerable
suffering have travelled to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland with friends
or relatives to end their lives. No one has been prosecuted but the risk is
always there. Under the present law, anyone who helps facilitate a suicide
faces up to 14 years in jail.

Giving judgment in Mrs Purdy’s case yesterday, the law lords said the DPP
should be required to set out an “offence-specific policy”,
identifying the facts and circumstances that he would take into account in
deciding whether it was in the public interest to prosecute under the
Suicide Act.

Experts said the ruling meant it was no longer acceptable for the DPP to
decide what was a crime on a case by case basis and that after he had set
out the principles that would exclude prosecutions for compassionate
assistance, the law would effectively have been changed. But the law lords
said the ruling did not decriminalise assisted suicide, which was rejected
after a highly charged debate this month by peers in the House of Lords
sitting as the second chamber of Parliament and not as a court.

Mrs Purdy suffers from progressive multiple sclerosis which could mean she
faces an undignified and distressing death. That might be avoided if she
were able to travel to Dignitas to end her life peacefully.

Her dilemma was that unless the law was clarified she might be forced to end
her life sooner than she planned, while she was still able to travel to
Switzerland independently, to avoid the risk of her husband being prosecuted
for assisting her. If the risk of prosecution was sufficiently low, she
could wait until the very last minute before travelling with her husband’s
assistance.

The law lords said: “Everyone has the right to respect for their private
life and the way that Mrs Purdy determines to spend the closing moments of
her life is part of the act of living. Mrs Purdy wishes to avoid an
undignified and distressing end to her life. She is entitled to ask that
this too must be respected.”

Campaigners hailed the victory as bringing an end to the “legal muddle”
over assisted suicide. Pressure for a change in the law has grown. The Royal
College of Nursing declared this month it was dropping its opposition to
assisted suicide and adopting a neutral stance.

Sarah Wootton, chief executive of Dignity in Dying, said: “This historic
judgment ensures the law keeps up with changes in society and, crucially,
provides a more rational deterrent to abuse than a blanket ban which is
never enforced.”

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