suicide, suicide tourism, assisted suicide
Press Association/AP
Debbie Purdy

An Appeal for Clarification Sends Euthanasia to Parliament

October 30, 2008 11:58 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
A multiple sclerosis sufferer's loss in the British High Court has shifted the debate over euthanasia to lawmakers, with an appeal for a clearer and updated law.

MS Sufferer Loses Bid for Clarification

British courts sent the issue of assisted suicide to Parliament this week with a ruling on the plight of Debbie Purdy, a 45-year-old sufferer of multiple sclerosis who sought clarification on whether her husband could be prosecuted for aiding in her death.

Seeking clarification on the fate of her husband should he accompany her to a Swiss clinic to pursue an assisted suicide, Purdy appealed to the British High Court, which ultimately found that the lack of a clear answer did not impose on Purdy’s human rights.

Expressing sympathy for her plight, the court’s judges stated that their role was only to interpret the law and not offer any changes that might help Purdy.

“This would involve a change in the law. The offence of suicide is very widely drawn to cover all manner of different circumstances; only Parliament can change it,” Lord Justice Scott Baker told The Times of London.

Her bid for clarification came after it became clear that her husband of 10 years could face up to 14 years for aiding or counseling her under current British law, should he return to the United Kingdom after her passing.

While Purdy has no plans to immediately pursue an assisted suicide, she has expressed her intention to travel to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland should her condition become unbearable.

The clinic, which has been linked to virtually all known British assisted suicides, has helped 101 British citizens end their lives in the last five years.

The death of the clinic’s most recent British patient, Daniel James, resulted in an investigation into his family’s role.

Dan James, who played for the England Universities rugby team and the England Students team, was paralyzed from the chest down when his spine collapsed during an accident in a training session in 2007. 

His parents, Julie and Mark James, said in a statement that Dan’s death was "no doubt a welcome relief from the 'prison' he felt his body had become and the day-to-day fear and loathing of his living existence."

Reactions: Mother defends decision; others reach out to James family

Julie James, Dan's mother, wrote about her son's suicide at the Web site of The Daily Telegraph in response to a story about euthanasia. "Dan found his life so unbearable and had tried to commit suicide three times. Other than to starve himself, to travel to Switzerland was his only option," James wrote. "Our son could not have been more loved, and had he felt he could live his life this way he would have been loved just the same, but this was his right as a human being. Nobody but nobody should judge him or anyone else."

The family of a man who died in the same suicide clinic as James says that his parents should not be prosecuted, reports the Welsh publication Wales On Sunday. Paul Bennett, a terminally ill patient from Wales, chose to undergo lethal injection at the Dignitas clinic in Zurich in May 2006.

"My heart went out to them when I saw the story on the news. We have been in exactly the same position. It is a tragedy," said Paul Bennett’s father, Roy, to Wales on Sunday. Roy added that his son made his choice as an adult. "He had no hope. If you take away hope from someone then your future is taken away and he could see that."

Opinion & Analysis: It's in Parliament's hands now

Writing in The Guardian following the High Court ruling, Afua Hirsch agreed with Purdy’s conclusion that the judges’ hand were tied and called on Parliament to pass a decisive and clear law about assisted suicide.
Citing the court’s statement that only Parliament can change the law, Hirsch concluded “How much harder do they need to hint?”

James' parents, who have been enduring widespread public scrutiny, deserve sympathy more than punishment, contends Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in The Independent. If prosecuted, she writes, "they will have punishment piled on to indescribable grief."

To those who condemn James' decision to end his own life, Alibhai-Brown says that not everyone can learn to live with extreme disability. "Some who choose to die before an incurable illness decides the timing for them are simply taking control; others want to go before they are too old and infirm. And then there are individuals like Daniel who hate the state they're in and wish to let go. Maybe medical advances would have come along to make things better—that is what Christopher Reeve hoped for until the day he died. Daniel didn't wish to wait."

Background: “Suicide tourism”

People seeking assisted suicides have been traveling to Switzerland for years now, as part of a phenomenon being called "suicide tourism." CBS reported in 2003 that the country has the most liberal assisted suicide law in Europe, as the procedure, which requires that the patient carries out their own death, is legal as long as nobody makes a profit. Euthanasia, however, in which a doctor administers a lethal drug, is illegal.

In 2005, an American expatriate who had created Web sites to help people arrange to commit suicide in Cambodia was forced to shut down the sites after Cambodian authorities threatened legal action. Roger Graham, originally of California, claimed that euthanasia was not illegal in Cambodia.

In recent years, Mexico has become another popular suicide destination, reported the San Diego Reader in August. Tijuana, which was already a hotspot for those seeking medicine or medical procedures that are expensive or unavailable in other countries, is now seeing suicide tourists from as far as 8,000 miles away. Dr. Philip Nitschke, Australia's "Dr. Death" and the author of a book on suicide that was banned in several countries, says that Mexico is convenient and “relatively easy for people to access.”

Related Topic: America’s “Dr. Death” to run for office?

CNN reported earlier this year that Jack Kevorkian, who participated in the assisted suicides of more than 100 people in the 1990s, was planning to run for Congress.

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