Debbie Purdy will get the clarity she needs
is a historic victory that has changed the way the law will treat those who go abroad with their loved ones to end their lives. Not only does it ensure the law is more in keeping with changes in society, but it also provides a more rational deterrent to abuse than a blanket ban which is never enforced. That must be better than the current muddle.
It means Debbie, and many like her, will finally get the clarity they need to make important decisions at the end of their lives. We will now all have the freedom to take the decision to end our lives, knowing in advance the consequences for our loved ones. The judgment means that the director of public prosecutions (DPP) will have to set out the specific circumstances under which someone may be prosecuted for accompanying someone to die abroad. And this is just the beginning in the campaign for choice at the end of life.
We know that more than , where it is legal to choose an assisted death. More than 800 Britons are members of Dignitas. A shows that almost three-quarters of people surveyed support the right for terminally ill people to have the option of an assisted death under strict safeguards. This issue is not going to go away, and this judgment is a significant step in the right direction to solving the existing problems with the law on assisted dying.
The law lords are very clear that their role is to clarify the law, not change it, and a change in the law is necessary to ensure that we can fully protect those who may be vulnerable to coercion as well as protect the fundamental right to autonomy at the end of life. Within their role, however, the law lords have had the courage to deal head-on with the specific issue of people travelling abroad to die. In his judgment Lord Neuberger states "it cannot be doubted that a sensible and clear policy document would be of great legal and practical value" and that is exactly what this decision is – sensible.
Crucially, the judgment has made a clear distinction between maliciously encouraging someone to commit suicide and compassionately assisting someone to die, in order that these acts are treated differently. Lord Brown said what is needed is "a custom-built policy statement indicating the various factors for and against prosecution, factors designed to distinguish between those situations in which, however tempted to assist, the prospective aider and abettor should refrain from doing so, and those situations in which he or she may fairly hope to be, if not commended, at the very least forgiven, rather than condemned, for giving assistance". We would all support the prosecution of someone who had put pressure on someone else to end their life, for personal gain or any other reason, and what we will now have is explicit guidance. The DPP's policy will actually make it far easier for prosecutions of this nature to be brought.
There is no question that ultimately the law will need to change in the UK to allow the choice of assisted dying for the terminally ill, but in the meantime we will await the DPP's guidance which will give transparency for Debbie, and others, in the knowledge that the direction of travel is for choice and control at the end of life.