Commons pressured to make right-to-die call

By Alex Stevenson

Keir Starmer, the man responsible for clarifying right-to-die legislation, has voiced concerns at parliament’s ability to decide the issue.

In an interview with the Telegraph today the director of public prosecutions (DPP) said he looked to the Commons to make the final decision on whether those helping the terminally ill travel to euthanasia clinics abroad should face prosecution.

He is set to publish a temporary clarification next month after Debbie Purdy, a primary progressive multiple sclerosis sufferer, won a ruling in the law lords’ final judgment demanding her right to clear up the issue.

Mr Starmer hinted heavily after the ruling he wanted to see MPs express their view and make the definitive judgments in the Commons by next spring.

In his statement following the law lords’ judgment, he said he would hold a consultation and publish a finalised policy by spring 2010 only “in the continuing absence of any legislative framework”.

And today he addressed the issue again. “Not everyone has the means to go abroad to commit suicide, and a political decision has to be made on whether some assisted suicide is legal,” he told the Telegraph newspaper.

“That decision needs to be made by parliament.”

Concerns remain the problem will not be resolved by MPs, however. Mr Starmer voiced doubts about the Commons’ ability to make a call on right-to-die.

He added: “On the question of whether this is better dealt with by parliament, there’s nothing much I can do to nudge them along.

“They’re divided, there’s no inclination to change the law, so we have no choice but to produce this policy.”

The Conservative party did not issue a comment on the Purdy case and told they did not have a position on the issue.

A Labour spokesman said the same applied to her party. Both parties have significant memberships in the all-party parliamentary groups backing – and opposing – the right to euthanasia.

Media coverage of the issue has crystallised over Ms Purdy’s case. She wants to know whether her husband will be prosecuted if, as her condition deteriorates, she can travel to the Dignitas euthanasia clinic in Switzerland without worrying about him facing prosecution.

She said last week: “We have to see and wait and see what the DPP actually says. But he’s got to be guided partly by what is accepted behaviour now and what the public want.”

Mr Starmer made clear in the interview his clarification would extend beyond Dignitas cases, however.

He said the guidelines would apply equally to those helping people die in Britain as well as abroad.

“The same broad principles will apply,” he said.

“They’ve got to apply to all acts, in the jurisdiction or out of it. We won’t have separate rules for Dignitas.”

There is a way round Mr Starmer’s headache about seeking a “political decision”.

Business managers in the Commons are likely to decide the issue is a personal, ethical one – and give MPs a free vote.