Purdy and the Role of the Law

Having spent a chunk of my weekend reading the Purdy ruling, one of the things that it seems to illustrate is the way in which ethics and law sometimes seem to come apart.  The ruling notes that Purdy and Puente are faced with “an impossible dilemma”, and that “although Mr Puente would be willing to pay whatever panalty the law may require, for Ms Purdy it would be a price too high.”

The current Suicide Act is framed as it is, I suspect, partly to demonstrate that the Crown does not approve of suicide, and partly to protect the vulnerable.  The irony here – and, for once, it may be that the word “tragedy” would be the correct one to use – is that a law designed with the best of intentions may, conceivably, lead to Purdy dying before she wants to, because she will feel pressured into making the trip to Dignitas before the point at which her life becomes intolerable.  If this is what happens, it will be hard to do anything but salute her moral heroism and lament the fact that it was necessary to take that action – or, at least, that she felt it necessary.

On the other hand, there have been – as far as I know – no prosecutions in respect of trips to Dignitas.  And it’s hard to see how it could be in the public interest for there to be any such proceedings.  This might be seen by some as tacit permission for assisted suicide.  That’s probably not quite right – but it raises an interesting thought.

Let’s allow a couple of axioms.  First, though the legal position may be designed to demonstrate a lingering formal disapproval of suicide, doing anything about that disapproval is another matter entirely.  Bluntly, it’s not the place of the law to regulate everything, and some things are none of the law’s concern.  This is why there are no prosecutions for, say, adultery: the law may have a certain opinion on its rightness or wrongness, but it doesn’t impose it.  Suicide, arguably, falls into this category.

So we’re left with the thought that the aspect of the suicide legislation that carries the weight reflects the thought that the vulnerable ought to be protected from unwanted “assistance”.

That being the case, though, we might imagine that there would only ever be cause for the law to worry about a case of assisted suicide in those cases when a person’s willingness to die was called into question.  In those cases – such as Purdy’s – where the suicide has made no bones about their intention, then worries about vulnerability seem to reduce.  There’d be no public interest in bringing a prosecution, just because we could be reasonably sure that the assistance offered was genuine assistance rather than a euphemism for murder.  And that, in turn, suggests that the more gratuitous the violation of the law on assisted suicide – the more publicly it is done – then the less reason there is for the DPP to worry about it.

And this brings us back to Debbie Purdy’s dilemma – the one in which she claims the law forces her to travel to Dignitas sooner than she would otherwise like, the better to be able to ensure that her husband avoids prosecution.  In this case, I wonder whether she really does have to do that.  For such is the publicity of the case that we could be reasonably sure that the decision to travel was hers and that there was no coercion after all.  The vulnerable would still be protected; the tragedy of Purdy being made vulnerable by a law designed to protect the vulnerable would be averted; and we’d have an ethically defensible reason not to worry about an ethically defensible law being bent.  


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