Saturday, December 12, 2009

UK Assisted Suicide Prosecuted

Fears that Britain might introduce a euthanasia law have been mounting since September when the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, drew up interim guidelines specifying when a person should be prosecuted for assisting suicide. He said that prosecution was "likely" if the victim was under 18, had a mental illness or was in good physical health. It would be unlikely if the victim had a grave illness or disability, was determined to kill himself and was a close friend or relative of a helper, who was motivated by compassion.

With a public consultation on these guidelines ending next week, a world expert on euthanasia, Professor John Keown, of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University, has mauled them in a UK law magazine. "Justice should be tempered by mercy; not undermined by it," he writes.

First, he says, the guidelines need to make it clear that assisting suicide remains a serious offence which is punishable by up to 14 years' imprisonment. Media reports have given the impression that now there are "exceptions" to the law. Second, a presumption in favour of prosecution should be maintained. Keown says that the interim guidelines "signally fail" to do this. Instead, he writes, "They misleadingly state that the question is whether prosecution 'is needed' in the public interest."

Finally, the interim guidelines list 16 circumstances when prosecution is likely and 13 when it is not likely. There is a danger that the public prosecutor could become merely an even-handed arbitrator rather than an enforcer of the law. Furthermore, some factors when prosecution is unlikely are "problematic" -- such as having a severe and incurable physical disability. This could easily become discrimination against the disabled, or could allow relatives to pressure people into killing themselves.
Source:  New Law Journal, Dec 11

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