Comment: Allowing assisted suicide is a matter of good conscience

Today, the House of Commons debates allowing assisted suicide on compassionate grounds and has the opportunity to welcome it. It is in the public interest that they do.

By James Harris

As is well documented, some dying Britons who consider their suffering unbearable travel abroad to die. Others take matters into their own hands domestically – based on research by the think tank Demos, around ten per cent of all suicides are by people who are chronically or terminally ill. How the law confronts this difficult area is one of the most fraught and important ethical issues we face today.

Prior to 1961 it was an offence to attempt to take your life. But society moved on, prosecutions dropped, and the law changed. The Suicide Act of 1961 decriminalised suicide and attempted suicide, and attempted to protect vulnerable people by introducing a new offence of assisted suicide – punishable by up to 14 years in prison. In doing so, parliament created a legal anomaly: an offence of assisting an act that is legal.

Nevertheless, this anomaly exists in part for good reason. There is universal agreement that anyone who maliciously encourages someone to die should be prosecuted. Where the arguments start is around what should happen to those who assist someone to die wholly on compassionate grounds.

The law on statute is not clear. Whilst stating that it is an offence to assist or encourage suicide, it also states that every prosecution must be consented to by the director of public prosecutions (DPP). So even as far back as 1961, and well before Britons were travelling abroad to die, our parliamentarians were conscious that assisting someone to end their life is a broad offence that should not automatically result in prosecution.

In 2009, and as a result of Debbie Purdy's legal case, the law lords instructed the DPP to set out the factors for and against prosecution. This was against a backdrop of Britons travelling abroad to die and no prosecutions being brought against the loved ones who accompanied them. The DPP's final version of the policy, published in February 2010, sets out public interests factors weighing in favour of and against prosecution. Broadly speaking it distinguishes between malicious encouragement to die that will be prosecuted, and compassionate amateur assistance that will not.

Surprisingly, whilst there have been a couple of ten minute rule bills and some Westminster hall debates, there has not been a substantive debate in the House of Commons on the application of the law since 1961. Over 50 years on, the time for debate has come. Today, the House of Commons debates the DPP's policy and has the opportunity to welcome it. It is in the public interest that they do.

In forgiving the actions of those who act wholly on compassionate grounds the guidelines appeal to those who support a change in the law to allow doctor-assisted dying. In reiterating that assisted suicide is a crime and there is no automatic immunity from prosecution they also appeal to those who oppose it. For all the emotive arguments, the DPP's policy reminds us that there is common ground between the two camps: on access to good quality end-of-life care, on the need to protect the vulnerable and that every case of assistance to die does not deserve to be prosecuted.

Is this the end of the campaign for greater patient choice at the end of life? No. So long as Britons are unable to seek medical help to die in the last days and weeks of life and are reliant on another country for that assistance, the campaign will continue. But in the meantime we can hopefully be assured that those who do fall foul of our antiquated law will be treated with compassion by the police and prosecutors.

James Harris is director of campaigns and communications for Dignity in Dying.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.