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UK Director of Public Prosecutions' assisted dying guidelines improves patient choice

Jo Cartwright [Campaigns and Press Officer, Dignity in Dying]: "The Director of Public Prosecutions' (DPP) interim guidelines on assisted dying following Debbie Purdy's legal victory represent a small but significant breakthrough for greater patient choice, control and protection at the end of life. We at Dignity in Dying hear from many people who, understandably, do not want to suffer unbearably and against their wishes at the end of life. These interim guidelines allow those who are suffering at the end of their lives, and their loved ones to make decisions knowing what the likely consequences of their actions will be. Informed choice is much better than a legal grey area.

Motivation was cited by the DPP as being the crucial factor in prosecution decisions, and for the first time compassionate assistance to die for loved ones who request it has been codified as being acceptable. The factors outlined in the guidance, both for and against prosecution, sensibly allay fears of creating a duty to die whilst not imposing a duty to suffer. The overwhelming majority of us do not want to see people prosecuted when they have reacted compassionately to a loved one's request for help to die.

Whilst these guidelines are helpful, they only partially resolve the problem. The status quo is unacceptable and fundamentally, the law needs to change. The guidelines clarify the law for the loved ones of those asking for assistance, but they cannot and do not provide a safeguarded means of assisted dying in the UK, therefore we continue to export our terminally ill abroad to die, or condone suicides behind closed doors.

Critics of the DPP, Keir Starmer QC, and his guidelines have said that he has exceeded his authority and that this is an issue for Parliament, but Parliament has failed to address this on a number of occasions. The DPP was instructed by the Law Lords to provide a prosecution policy, and he has done so well within his remit.

In light of Parliament's reluctance to address this issue time and time again, Dignity in Dying calls on the Government to launch a full and impartial consultation on the issue. We are confident that evidence from other countries and individual states within the US who have legalised assisted dying shows that a safeguarded assisted dying law not only gives greater choice but also provides better protection against abuse. Currently, even with the DPP's guidance, assisted deaths go on unregulated, with investigations occurring retrospectively. An upfront and safeguarded assisted dying process is the logical progression to a more compassionate approach to end of life."

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.

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