The media are tying themselves in knots following last week’s Law Lords judgement on the case of Debbie Purdy, a multiple sclerosis sufferer and campaigner for a change in the law over assisted suicide.
The Times reported that the ruling means, “Families who help terminally ill relatives to end their lives will be free from the risk of prosecution.” This is simply not the case.
In fact, the court merely ruled that the director of public prosecutions (DPP) has to publicly clarify the grounds on which he already bases decisions on whether or not to prosecute cases of assisted suicides abroad.
The Suicide Act of 1961 says that “a person who aids, abets, counsels or procures the suicide of another” faces up to 14 years in prison.
More than 100 people have so far travelled from Britain to a clinic in Swizerland to attempt to get round this law. The DPP has not taken action in any of these cases.
Some people now fear that if the guidelines are too precise it may actually make prosecution more likely. And the clarified rules won’t alter the fact that helping someone to die here will still be illegal.
There is of course one group with moral certainty over the issue—the anti-choice bigots and the religious hierarchies. They believe that life is property—and that it is a wrong to take something that is the property of god.
On such a nonsensical basis they would eagerly pursue grieving relatives through the courts.
I have sat through religious funerals where the guilt of the supposed sin of suicide—and the legacy of legal proscription—has added a further burden of shame to the immense grief and pain of bereaved relatives and friends.
For that reason alone we should be against the state or the church being able to harass the families of those who commit suicide, assisted or not.
But defending something from the state is not the same as advocating it. Many people are rightly wary of the idea of encouraging the death of the ill, old and infirm.
People with chronic illnesses want to exercise some control over the end of their lives and rightly so. But surely that control should not be simply about how they die but also how they continue to live their lives.
The problems that people with terminal illnesses face are problems for society as a whole.
They are the problems of under-resourced hospitals and care homes and a lack of proper resources for palliative care. A system that subjects its elderly and sick to poverty, neglect and social isolation undermines their will to live.
Another way of clarifying the issue is to think of suicide in general. The reasons people commit suicide are complex. But the issue of how society is organised is central.
Around 5,000 people commit suicide every year in Britain. Suicide is the most common cause of death in men under the age of 35. And men are three times more likely to die by suicide than women. There are some anomalies in the statistics. But put at its simplest, you are more likely to commit suicide if you are poor.
One Oxford university study shows that a 3 percent rise in unemployment is linked to a rise of 2.4 percent in suicides in people under the age of 64. Unemployment has increased by more than that amount in the last year.
The highest rate of suicide is among farmers and vets. This is not only due to the misery of rural life, but to access to the means of committing suicide.
Yet no one would argue that the solution is to make shotguns more readily available to enable people to fulfil their right to take their life.
It is a cruel indictment of our society that people are pushed to end their own lives.
Around one in five people will suffer from some form of depression during their lives. Laws on suicide will not deal with this problem.
We should oppose the poverty, alienation and misery that isolates people in despair. We should defend the right of people to end their own lives. But we have to combine that with fighting for a society that is worth living in.