Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Mixed reactions to MPs' decision about assisted suicide prosecutions

The House of Commons last night welcomed the Department of Public Prosecution (DPP) policy on prosecuting those who have encouraged or assisted in suicide.  This policy was published in 2010 and sets out a list of factors to consider when deciding whether or not to bring a prosecution against someone who has helped another person to kill him/herself.  You can read these factors, which provide guidance when deciding whether a prosecution would be in the public interest, here.  It should be noted that these do not seek to set out circumstances in which assisting suicide could be made legal in itself.

The original motion, brought by Richard Ottoway MP, "invited the Government to consult as to whether to put (the DPP’s guidance on prosecutions for assisted suicide) on a statutory basis", the aim being to secure immunity from prosecution for some cases of assisted suicide ahead of the event.  Whilst the House of Commons passed unopposed a motion to "welcome" the DPP's guidance, together with an amendment encouraging the development of palliative care services, they wanted to retain the blanket ban on assisted suicide.  That is, the DPP is to be allowed to continue making prosection decisions on a case-by-case basis but a call by pro-euthanasia MPs for a parliamentary consultation aimed at placing the DPP's guidance on a statutory footing was withdrawn without a vote.  Assisting a suicide remains illegal and potentially punishable by force of law.

Two anti-euthanasia organisations have reacted to the outcome of the debate very differently.  Dr Peter Saunders, Director of Care Not Killing, welcomed it - you can read his response over at his blog, Christian Medical Comment.  Dr Saunders commented,  "MPs have today given a ringing endorsement to the need for the further development of specialist palliative care and hospice provision in which Britain is already a world leader. We welcome this move to strengthen existing services and to make the highest quality care more accessible and available.

"They have also today, as expected, given endorsement to the DPP policy on assisted suicide, which enables the DPP to exercise discretion in bringing prosecutions on a case by case basis, whilst upholding a blanket prohibition on all assistance or encouragement with suicide.

"The law in Britain thereby is seen to have both a stern face to deter exploitation and abuse, and a kind heart to temper justice with mercy in hard cases. This is the right balance. The clear evidence that it is working well is seen in the very small number of cases occurring (20 per year) and the low number of prosecutions."

John Smeaton, Director of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), shares with Dr Saunders pro-life, anti-euthanasia convictions, but took a somewhat different view on this debate.  He wrote on his blog that the DPP's prosecution policy should not even have been welcomed by the Commons but, rather, "rescinded or revised" because it "undermines society's protection of the most vulnerable".  SPUC's view is that "the DPP’s guidance effectively decriminalises assisted suicide by removing any realistic chance of prosecutions for assisting suicide", with SPUC's Paul Tully remarking, "The DPP's prosecuting policy has emptied the Suicide Act, which sets out the crime of assisting suicide, of its meaning and much of its force."  You can read SPUC's press release about the motion here.

Where do you stand?  I cannot speak for St John's Pro Life Group, with whom I have not discussed this particular motion, but speaking for myself I think I am with Peter Saunders.  Whilst it is true that it is not always easy to be certain that someone has acted out of compassion in helping a loved one to die, I would venture that this is usually the case.  Giving such a person immunity from prosecution before the event would indeed be giving the wrong signal and "emptying the Suicide Act of its meaning and force" - but I cannot feel that traumatised, grieving people who believed they were doing the right thing for someone they love should be used as "deterrents" after the event by being given jail sentences.  Yes, their compassion is misguided, but not punishable. Subjective culpability cannot always be equated with the objective moral status of the act committed, as I have remarked before. 

I admire greatly the work of SPUC but note with some disappointment that they have not remarked on the MPs' endorsement of strengthening palliative care, which in itself is surely one of the best deterrents of assisted suicide.

It remains the case, of course, that the Catholic Church prohibits the deliberate taking of human life even if it is one's own.  As pro-lifers we continue to believe that true compassion will always seek to offer reasons to live, not ways to die.  We will seek all the avenues we can to passionately promote the value and beauty of life to and on behalf of every human person.

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