Britain to clarify assisted suicide laws

LONDON, England (CNN) -- The director of public prosecutions in Britain was scheduled to issue new guidelines Wednesday on assisted suicide, making clear at what point people face charges if they help a loved one go abroad to die The issuing of the policy is a direct result of a high-profile case brought by British multiple sclerosis sufferer Debbie Purdy, who had sued to find out what would happen to her husband under the law if he helped her to end her life.

Purdy's case reached the Law Lords, Britain's highest court, and in July they ordered the director of public prosecutions (DPP) to spell out the criteria under which he would prosecute someone who helps another person commit suicide. "The law has always given the DPP discretion over whether to prosecute individual assisted suicide cases. So the publication of this policy will not change the law, but it will clarify when prosecutions will and won't be brought," said Sarah Wootton, the chief executive of Dignity in Dying, which campaigned on Purdy's behalf. The new policy from DPP Keir Starmer will use public interest to gauge whether to prosecute those who assist in a suicide, a spokeswoman from his office said.

Dignity in Dying said it expects the new criteria to more clearly distinguish between compassionate and malicious acts. Under current law, assisting a suicide is a crime punishable by up to 14 years in prison in England and Wales. As a result, many travel abroad to foreign clinics, like those in Switzerland, where assisted suicide is permitted.

But when their relatives return to Britain, they still face the risk of prosecution. The law does not make clear at what point they have broken the law -- whether by accompanying their loved one to the clinic, opening the door of the car to the airport, or helping them to arrange the trip.

No one has ever been prosecuted for the crime in the United Kingdom.

Purdy spent more than two years fighting her case in Britain's courts, arguing that the lack of clarity in the law violated her human rights. She said she wants the option to end her life should her symptoms one day become unbearable.

But at such an advanced stage of illness, Purdy would require the help of her husband, Omar Puente, in order to take the final step. Purdy wanted the law clarified so she would know at what stage Puente risked prosecution -- thereby sparing him any criminal penalties.

"I do not want Omar or any other person dear to me to be made a criminal for what I see as an act of love and humanity," Purdy had said.

The guidelines issued Wednesday will be an interim policy and could still be influenced by a public consultation, the spokeswoman for the director of public prosecutions said. A final policy is expected to be released in the spring.
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