Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

Editor's Viewpoint: Assisted suicide laws need debate

Anyone reading our reports today on the Holywood woman who starved herself to death because she felt it was a better option than waiting to die from motor neurone disease must be moved by her daughter's emotional account of her last days.

The lady in question knew that she could legally refuse to take food or fluids and signed a document asking for her wishes to be respected, showing that she was of sound mind and determined to die as she saw fit.

The 24 days that she took to die were a terrible ordeal for both her and family. It was not a clean, clinical alternative to her illness and near the end the family had to beg medical professionals to administer painkilling injections to ease her suffering from the effects of profound dehydration. Some people might wonder if her choice of the way to die was not just as bad as letting the disease take its course.

While the family stood by their mother's decision, their dilemma was compounded by the legal issues which surround assisted suicide. Assisted suicide is illegal in the UK.

While the law is quite clear, complex moral arguments still remain - for example, should the sanctity of life outweigh the quality of life? Dividing the ethical from the legal is difficult, but guidelines issued by the Director of Public Prosecutions in England in 2010 put a more compassionate face on implementation of the law.

The guidelines change the focus onto the motivation of those who help a person to die, rather than on the characteristics of that person. They don't open the door to assisted suicide but they do take into account whether people acted out of compassion for their loved ones, if the person made a conscious and informed decision on how they wanted to die and whether anyone assisting in the death would benefit materially.

It would be a sensible move to adopt similar prosecuting guidelines here, so that families, like the one in our reports, can stand by their loved ones at a time of great emotion without the added worry of possibly facing court or jail.

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