In a landmark ruling from the House of Lords, the final appeal court in the UK, a woman with multiple sclerosis has won her court battle to have the law on assisted dying clarified.
Debbie Purdy had sought legal clarification as to whether her husband would be prosecuted if he ever accompanied her abroad to a clinic to assist in her death.
The Law Lords ruled today that Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to respect for private and family life, does extend to the manner and quality of her death.
The Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, said he would now publish an interim policy on when prosecutions could occur by September, before putting the issue out to public consultation. Permanent policy will be published next Spring.
Ms Purdy herself told the BBC this afternoon (30 July 2009) that she hoped there could now be further progress in the ongoing debate about assisted dying - which she distinguished from assisted suicide, because it is about those cases where someone is already dying and the question is the timing and manner of that death.
Some religious groups, disability organisations and others have campaigned against any change to the law affecting assisted dying, or in some cases for any clarification other than the need for prosecution of those involved.
However, a majority of Church of England members have previously expressed cautious support for a controlled and compassionate decriminalisation of assisted dying and the theological ethicist, Professor Paul Badham is among those who have supported this view.
Most of the churches in Britain are opposed to assisted dying or suicide, but the Methodists and the URC have called for a moderate and reasoned debate, recognising the extreme and compassionate circumstances involved.
Many people are anxious that any change in the legal status of assisted dying might open the gates to wider change that would pressure or imperil people with disabilities and those living with terminal illnesses - many of whom do not wish to die prematurely.
There are also disputes over what has happened in places like Oregon in the US, where the law has been relaxed.
Some see assisted dying as distinct from assisted suicide, others as part of the same act or continuum. The BBC has recently persisted in using the terms as if they mean the same thing.
In one of the first public reactions to today's judgement, Naomi Phillips, Public Affairs Officer for the British Humanist Association (BHA), said “This is an exceptionally important ruling, given that it is the first time that a Court has accepted that Convention rights are invoked. Being able to die, with dignity, in a manner of our choosing must be a human right. In the Purdy case, it has been shown that the quality of her death is undeniably linked to the quality of her life.’
Ms Phillips continued: “It is also welcome that the judgment went further and has made clear that the Director of Public Prosecutions [wishes] to make clear what factors would be taken into account when deciding whether to prosecute someone who assists suicide abroad."
She added: "The judgment highlights yet again the urgent need for Parliamentarians to legislate to reform the law. This complex issue, involving personal freedom, compassion, dignity and safety concerns, needs to be addressed in clear, unambiguous legislation open to public scrutiny rather than decided at the discretion of one individual – the DPP. The decision of how one dies can be just as important how one chooses to live.”
Former Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, said it was a "very significant victory".
Simon Gillespie, chief executive of the MS Society, said: "There are 100,000 people with MS across the UK and most will live about as long as any of us.
He added: "The key to living well with MS is getting the right care and support from the point of diagnosis, including palliative care when it's needed."