Hewitt pushes for assisted suicide without fear

By Laura Miller

Former health secretary Patricia Hewitt is pushing MPs to support a controversial law change enabling people to take terminally ill patients abroad for assisted suicide without fear of prosecution.

The amendment, which can only be discussed and not voted on at this stage, has only been signed by a small number of Labour, Lib Dem and Conservative MPs, and is not thought to have much chance of success.

But more than 100 MPs signed a Commons motion asking for a debate on the issue of assisted suicide.

Care Not Killing, a group which opposes assisted suicide, warned the effect of Ms Hewitt’s amendment would be “tragic”.

Explaining her tabling of the motion, Ms Hewitt said the issue had “troubled” her for years, and was in recognition of the over 700 Britons who are currently members of Dignitas and may choose an assisted suicide in future.

She added that her amendment was only “reinforcing the current prosecution policy”.

If allowed the opportunity in future, the former health secretary would support a private members bill allowing the terminally ill, but mentally competent, to decide for themselves how and when to die.

Liberal Democrat peer Lord Carlile recommended the current system be left as it is, describing it as “quite clear”.

“There is a law against assisting suicide and there is also an important constitutional discretion which can be exercised so that a prosecution may not be brought if it is in the public interest not to bring it,” he said.

Making the law “prescriptive” would make using that discretion more difficult, he said.

Ms Hewitt’s move follows the highly publicised case in October of multiple sclerosis patient Debbie Purdy, who failed to convince two High Court judges that the current law on assisted suicide needed to be clarified.

She feared that her husband would be prosecuted for murder if he aided her death in Swiss euthanasia clinic Dignitas.

The judges ruled current guidelines were sufficient, and the Court of Appeal put the responsibility on parliament to change the law.

More than 100 British citizens have chosen to end their lives at Dignitas since it opened in 1998.

In Switzerland aided suicide is legal, as long as no profit is made from the death.

Anyone carrying it out in the UK risks up to 14 years in prison, although no one has been prosecuted as yet.