The subject of assisted suicide is one of the most debated and controversial legal and moral issues of our time. Whilst there can really be no ‘right’ answer morally as to whether an individual should be able to choose the right to die, or whether somebody who assists a person who wants to die should be punished, in legal terms an answer must be provided so people are aware if the act is punishable.
Is it illegal?
As the law stands the act of committing suicide is not illegal, but assisting somebody to commit suicide is.
In assessing whether the act of assisting suicide should remain illegal, there are a plethora of considerations for law-makers to mull over: Will removing the criminal punishment encourage more people to take their own lives? Will people with long-term illnesses be under pressure to volunteer? Given that people who suffer horrific injuries often take a long time to mentally get on with their lives, would the legalisation of assisted suicide mean that they take their life prematurely? However, surely it is also fair to say that a person in pain with no real family or friends who wants to die should be allowed to, and the person who helps them should not be punished for this?
The grave problem that lawyers and indeed members of parliament have with this situation is that, in the UK, lawyers operate by precedent.
This means that there must be some kind of objective ground by which lawyers can assess whether somebody is guilty of an offence. For example the facts of each and every murder will always be particular to that case, but in most cases everybody knows where they stand legally should the case go to trial.
With assisted suicide the problem is that every case will be subjective. Many people may agree that a husband who helps his terminally ill wife, who is in severe pain, to die should not be punished for it.
If this were made a precedent then when a husband encourages his wife to take her life because he cannot live with her illness anymore, many people would feel this was a very different scenario, and yet proving any difference between the two examples would be very difficult for solicitors and judges alike.
Legality in Europe
One option that people consider when looking to assist in suicide nowadays is to travel abroad to where the act of assisted suicide is not illegal. Most common destinations include the Netherlands and Switzerland. However, there are cases where people cannot afford or are simply unable to travel.
Current legal status in UK
The problem of assisted suicide in the UK shows no sign of ending as, despite several consultation papers, there has been no recent change in the law.
Every case of assisted suicide will be investigated by the police as there is the potential of being convicted of murder.
Recent guidelines published by the department for prosecutions have shown that the courts do have discretion in terms of sentencing and will look at the motives behind the act.
Assisted suicide remains a controversial issue and the need to protect the elderly is one of the main reasons why in the UK assisted suicide remains a criminal act.