Don't book a ticket to Dignitas just yet

I’ll say one thing for the euthanasia lobby: they are masters of media manipulation. Somehow they managed to persuade the press and broadcasters that the law lords had demanded that parliament reverse its opposition to the legalisation of so-called “assisted suicide”. This collective misinterpretation of last Thursday’s judgment on the case of Debbie Purdy, a multiple sclerosis sufferer and campaigner for such a change in the law, must in part have derived from the sight of Purdy and her lawyers happily toasting the outcome with champagne.

Yet Purdy, her husband, Omar Puente, and her fellow campaigners from Dignity in Dying (formerly known as Exit) are celebrating prematurely. The highest court in the land has merely required that the director of public prosecutions set out publicly the grounds on which he already bases his decisions on whether or not to prosecute cases of assisted suicides of Britons taking place at Dignitas, the tawdry Zurich-based dispensary of death.

In none of the 115 instances of Britons who have taken advantage of this sinister “service” has the DPP taken action. In all those cases he will have assessed the likelihood of a jury finding against a putative defendant; he will recommend prosecution only if he thinks there is a good chance of a jury convicting. One of the merits of the jury system is that in especially tragic episodes it will allow human factors to outweigh the letter of the law; but the law remains — in this case to discourage as much as possible the killing of people, from whatever motives.

In fact the DPP has already made a detailed public explanation of one of his decisions not to prosecute — that involving the family of the 23-year-old Daniel James, a rugby player who became suicidal after a collapsed scrum had rendered him quadriplegic. The DPP declared last December that among the factors in his decision not to prosecute was that “neither [of his parents] influenced Daniel James to commit suicide. On the contrary, [they] tried relentlessly to persuade him not to do so”. Furthermore, they did not stand “to gain any advantage, financial or otherwise, by his death”.

As Lord Neuberger observed in last Thursday’s judgment: “There is . . . a slight air of unreality in the debate, now that the director has published his sympathetic, principled and persuasive reasons for not prosecuting the parents . . . of Daniel James . . . As a result, it can be said with some force that it must be pretty clear to Ms Purdy, and to Mr Puente, how the director approaches . . . cases where a loving relative assists a person who is of sound mind and determined to end her life, to travel abroad to achieve her wish in a country where assisting suicide is not unlawful.” Indeed so. Why, therefore, was Purdy so euphoric after the judgment (assuming she had read it in its entirety)? Does she really believe that the law lords have ordered the DPP to indemnify her husband in advance from any risk of prosecution?

If so, she will be disappointed. As one of the judges, Lord Brown, warned: “Obviously no advance undertaking can be sought from the DPP that he will refuse consent to a prosecution in a particular case. He could never be sufficiently sure of the precise circumstances of the case, and in any event, of course, circumstances can always change.” Thus the first sentence of The Times’s striking front-page report of the judgment — “Families who help terminally ill relatives to end their lives will be free from the risk of prosecution after a landmark ruling yesterday” — is, to put it mildly, a bit previous.

And what of the claims by the euthanasia lobby that the law lords “have shown the courage that parliament lacked”? Consider instead the real words of Lord Hope in his judgment: “It must be emphasised at the outset that it is no part of our function to change the law to decriminalise assisted suicide. If changes are to be made, as to which I express no opinion, this must be a matter for parliament.” Indeed, Hope went on to mention the failure of Lord Falconer’s attempt last month to convince the House of Lords to back an amendment legalising assisting Britons to take part in the Dignitas experience, observing that no one “can be in any doubt as to . . . the difficulties that such a change in the law might give rise to”.

“Difficulties” is a nicely judicious understatement, which is why the existing high level of judicial discretion — sometimes called “lack of clarity” — is so valuable in this area. How would a statute distinguish between an assisted suicide that was the result of subtle pressure on a vulnerable old woman from a much-loved son dismayed by the prospect of his inheritance being consumed by private nursing home fees, and one in which the old woman had instigated the idea, and to which her son had merely acceded? For all the treacly talk of “loved ones” that permeates the discourse of the assisted suicide advocates, the great majority of doctors oppose such a change in the law, partly because they didn’t enter medical practice to bump people off, and partly because they have a realistic understanding of family dynamics.

A change in the law in the direction of euthanasia would be not only an encouragement to avaricious or impatient relatives, but also a powerful suggestion in itself to our increasing number of old people to “do the decent thing”. Thus the 90-year-old Margaret White wrote a letter to The Times last week saying that she was drawing on her capital to pay her care bills. “I am happy here in the nursing home with no wish to die,” she said, “but were voluntary euthanasia to be made legal I would feel it my absolute duty to ask for it as I now have 19 descendants who need my legacy. I am sure I am not alone in this resolution.” We don’t need to guess that this might happen. A GP from a country that has legalised euthanasia, Holland, told a House of Lords committee investigating the legalisation of assisted suicide: “I see growing anxiety among patients, not just the terminally ill, that they think it is not decent not to ask for euthanasia sometimes, because they feel they are such a burden to their families.”

It is precisely this that causes those in parliament driven by a desire to act in the interests of the most vulnerable to oppose the increasingly strident calls for the legalisation of “assisted suicide”. You can see this in the voting records, which is why it is so contemptible that the euthanasiasts denounce this opposition as based merely on religious dogma: take away the bishops from the House of Lords, and there is still a majority opposed to their plans. This is nothing to do with a fundamentalist view about the inviolable sanctity of life; it is everything to do with the fact that laws are designed (or should be) to protect the community as a whole, rather than the interests of a small number of strong individuals with loud voices.

One of the characteristics of those most determined on assisted suicides is that they are powerful personalities used to exercising total control — the polar opposite of those who would be the most likely victims of their campaign, were it to succeed. Purdy is quite typical, described in The Guardian as “a self-confessed adrenaline junkie who had revelled in travelling the world diving from planes, conquering mountains, trekking through jungles and exploring the depths of the oceans”.

You can see why such a personality cannot bear to contemplate the complete loss of control that her condition might impose. Debbie Purdy is, in so many ways, an admirable woman. Yet when I saw her declare last Thursday, “I feel like I have my life back”, my stomach heaved. It is a sick society that regards assisted suicide as an affirmation of life.

Dominic Lawson