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8 Feb, 2010 04:14

To live and let die: assisted suicide disputed in Britain

Once again the issue of assisted suicide has become an issue in Britain, where the law says it's illegal to help anyone die even if they are terminally ill.

That is why people who want to end their lives have to travel to Switzerland.

Still, supporters of assisted death say it's a matter of time before it is legalized.

The debate over assisted suicide has gathered momentum in the UK following comments by the best-selling author Terry Pratchett.

Suffering from Alzheimer’s, he advocated the use of tribunals to decide whether people should be allowed to take their own lives.

His comments follow the acquittal last week of Kay Gilderdale, who was cleared of attempted murder after helping her daughter, Lynn, kill herself. She was paralyzed and suffered from myalgic encephalopathy, also known as ME or chronic fatigue syndrome, for years.

Micheline Mason, who champions the rights of the disabled, thinks the UK’s laws against helping people to die protect those who cannot speak for themselves, was highly critical of the potential development .

“It’s the most horrible idea, and I hope it never happens,” told RT Micheline Mason, a consultant on inclusive education. “There are far greater stories of disabled people who are left alone in hospitals, abandoned, neglected, treated miserably, elderly people who have no living relatives to protect them or look out for them, all kinds of unscrupulous people, and those are the ones that need protecting – that’s what the law is for.”

Helping someone die, regardless of how ill they are, is illegal in the UK.

Since 1998, around 100 Britons have traveled to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland to take their own lives. Their families face arrest on their return home, although in practice they are rarely charged.

Dr. Andrew Fergusson, spokesman for Care Not Killing Alliance, told RT: “The very fact that relatives helping somebody die must expect to be investigated with a presumption of prosecution is a powerful deterrent.”

Ed Turner took his mother to Dignitas after she was diagnosed with a degenerative illness which would have left her totally paralyzed and completely unable to communicate.

“I thought it was very unfair that my mother had to travel abroad to have what for her was a dignified death,” said Ed Turner, Treasurer of Dignity in Dying. “She would much rather have stayed at home and been surrounded by her family and friends there, and died at a time of her choosing. As it was, she had to travel to Switzerland, earlier than she might have done because traveling is very difficult when you’re terminally ill, so she had, effectively, to die earlier than she would have.”

Recent polls say up to 4 in 5 people are in favor of legally being able to help an ill loved one to commit suicide.

But some accuse the pro-assisted suicide lobby of an orchestrated campaign to sway public opinion in favor of legalizing it, which has fuelled the recent media coverage.

The issue has been examined and dismissed by Parliament twice in the last four years.

“They’ve done so for reasons of public safety because the concern is, if you change the law, then the people who are vulnerable, particularly the elderly, disabled and depressed or sick, are going to feel under pressure to request to end their lives so as not to be a burden upon relatives or carers or the state,” revealed the director of Caring not Killing, Dr. Peter Saunders.

Law lords are due to clarify the law for those who want to accompany relatives on suicide missions, but that’s unlikely to satisfy both camps.

Supporters of assisted dying say legalizing it is a question of when, not if. But the debate comes amid concerns that a media circus shouldn’t be driving a policy which is a matter of life and death.