On 23rd December 2014, Debbie Purdy died in a hospice at the age of 51. Purdy had been suffering from Multiple Sclerosis for many years and had long ago made the decision that she wished to end her life. In 2009, Purdy was cast into the public eye due to her battle with the English courts over the laws on assisted dying and how the ultimate decision is made as to whether or not to prosecute those who assist others in ending their lives.
Currently, the Suicide Act 1961 states that aiding someone in their own suicide is illegal, although suicide itself is no longer an offence. This means that anyone who attempts to help another to end their own life is committing a criminal offence and may be prosecuted. Matters of euthanasia and assisted dying have long plagued the English courtroom with many people arguing in favour of a legal reform to permit a right for individuals to end their lives or to be allowed assistance to do so if they are unable. These arguments are usually met with claims that such a system would no doubt be abused and that focus should instead be placed upon improving medical treatment and palliative care while avoiding options which could essentially be viewed as legally allowing individuals to kill each other. Needless to say, this area is a controversial one.
In 2009, Debbie Purdy took action against the Director of Public Prosecutions, arguing that the public should be able to know in advance whether or not a relative would be prosecuted if they were to assist in ending a suffering loved one’s life. Purdy herself wished to travel to Switzerland where such clinics exist to enable a peaceful end to the lives of those suffering from terminal or severe mental or physical illness. However, Purdy was reluctant to make the journey without her husband and desired to know what the legal repercussions would be should he assist her. Ultimately, Purdy argued that the decision process undertaken by the DPP as to whether or not to prosecute should be transparent and the public should be able to access and understand the reasoning behind such a vital decision. Purdy’s argument proved victorious and the DPP subsequently went on to develop prosecutorial guidelines which would consider the weight of both physical evidence and the relevance of public interest in regards to prosecuting someone who had assisted another in ending their life.
The guidelines that developed in the aftermath of the Purdy case are still in use today and have arguably offered vital guidance for those in the tragic scenario of choosing whether to assist another in the taking of their life. The public are no longer left in the dark and can view the guidelines for themselves and understand how the decision process works before making any decision as to how to act. However, this does not mean that the debate of assisted dying is anywhere near closed as the guidelines themselves continue to be challenged as insufficiently clear and campaigners call for a legislative change to allow individuals the freedom to help those suffering to end their pain. Currently, a Bill is progressing through the House of Lords which would allow terminally ill individuals the right to end their lives, with assistance if necessary. For many this is viewed as a much needed step forward in granting suffering individuals dignity and autonomy.
The topics of euthanasia and assisted dying are vast and will always be controversial and attract wide debate. However, due to the recent death of Purdy, it remains important to remember that any laws or codes of practice that the English courts wish to enforce need to be done so with clarity and an aim to inform and empower the decision maker. Debbie Purdy fought to make the law clearer and to assist others in her own tragic position. Some would argue that Purdy’s court case set the regulations for assisted suicide on a slippery slope, dissecting the reasoning of the DPP and potentially encouraging certain individuals to go ahead with plans to assist another in their death when previously the fear of prosecution would have prevented them. However, this is a slippery slope that we need to be on. Purdy’s case was not an isolated incident and there will always be suffering individuals considering ending their lives yet who require the assistance of others. Therefore, until the law is changed or reaffirmed, it is vital that clear and accessible guidelines exist in regards to how the legal system operates within these matters. Although Debbie Purdy and her husband never made the journey to Switzerland, thanks to the developments of her court case, there are many others who can make an informed and personal decision as opposed to being left powerless and unaware while attempting to cope with such tragic circumstances. Hopefully, Purdy will be remembered for her determined campaigning for the right to die and her beliefs in granting control, support and autonomy to suffering individuals.