Friday 7 August 2009

The implications of the Debbie Purdy case are profoundly disturbing

Paul Tully, SPUC's general secretary (pictured below), worked with the Society's lawyers on our intervention in the Debbie Purdy case. He explains here the disturbing implications of the law lords' judgment last week.

Several commentators, including Dominic Lawson and Baroness Finlay, have suggested that the euthanasia lobby are being unduly enthusiastic about the Lords decision in the Purdy case. They suggest that the outcome is not so bad from a pro-life perspective. But is this so?

The Law Lords have said that Ms Purdy should get her way in as much as she wants the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to issue an “offence specific” policy on when he will or won’t prosecute people for helping others to commit suicide. So is this such a bad outcome?

SPUC, as the only intervening party in the Purdy case, is well positioned to comment. I think the outcome is bad, because it may mean that those assisting suicide will know how to avoid prosecution for doing so. Not only those who take relatives abroad but also those who want to help others kill themselves here in England and Wales will be bolder. But I’m also concerned because of the thinking that underlies the judgement.

In SPUC’s submission to the House of Lords, one of the major arguments we made was this. That, if ending one’s life is part of the “right to privacy” (known as “Article 8” in human rights law), then it has to be weighed against the right to life (“Article 2”). And our submission pointed out the legal arguments why the right to life should always outweigh the right to privacy in this sense.

In contrast, when you read the Lords judgment, there is extended commentary on the right to privacy but barely a mention of the right to life. Lord Hope (who wrote the main body of the judgment) spends 13 paragraphs explaining his approach to the right to privacy, but not one about the right to life.

Lord Brown ignores the right to life of the suicide victim - and seems to think that Article 2 is there to protect others - not those wishing to end their lives. He says: “In short, as it seems to me, there will on occasion be situations where, ... it would be possible to regard the conduct of the aider and abettor as altruistic rather than criminal, conduct rather to be understood out of respect for an intending suicide’s rights under article 8 than discouraged so as to safeguard the right to life of others under article 2."

Another Law Lord, Baroness Hale, also implied that the point of article 2 was "protecting the rights of others" i.e. others apart from the person intending to commit suicide.

They say nothing of balancing 8 against 2. They talk as if, having decided that a would-be suicide's right to privacy is engaged, their article 2 rights have evaporated. Like the Bland judgment in the House of Lords in 1993, this judgment shows how little regard England’s highest court has for the right to life.

The immediate upshot of the judgment will be a document from the DPP, and he has moved quickly to say that it will not apply only to suicides abroad. The wider implications are even more profoundly disturbing.

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