Until the passing of the Suicide Act 1961, it was a crime to kill yourself and had been since the 13th century.

Indeed, we still refer to the act as “committing suicide”, in the same manner that we talk about “committing” a crime. The Samaritans do not use that phrase and the media are being urged to replace it.

The Past?

If suicide was proven, the deceased was denied a Christian burial, often being buried in unconsecrated ground or the rather more dramatic burial at a crossroads at night.  There was no religious ceremony and no mourners or prayers were allowed.  The deceased’s family were often reduced to paupers as they would be stripped of all their belongings, which were given to the Crown.  It was a terrible tragedy for all concerned and it brought great shame on the family, from which many never recovered.

The Present..

Fortunately, we are more enlightened now and we realise that those driven to suicide are often either mentally ill, or so desperate they can see no other way out.  They need help, not to be branded a criminal and shamed.

However, strangely enough, echoes of it remain.

It is no longer a crime to die at your own hand, but it is still a crime for someone else to help you to do so. Help is quite broadly interpreted and can be as wide as helping someone with a terminal illness to travel to clinics such as Dignitas in Switzerland so that they can end their life there. It is not known as suicide, but “assisted dying”.  Ironically, it is often because they have reached a stage with their illnesses where they cannot make these or similar arrangements themselves that they need help.

Equally ironically, to be found “guilty” of suicide, it had to be proved that the deceased were sane when they took their own lives. You may argue that surely no-one sane would do so, thus showing they were not guilty, but we cannot know what others are going through such that suicide seems the best option.

But perfectly sane people make the rational decision that they actually do want to die. If they cannot do it themselves, they want someone, often family, to help them. Some families would be willing to do so and many do, but they do so with the prospect of being prosecuted for assisting someone to take their own life, however ill and in pain they may be.  There have been many battles fought over the years to try to change the law, but it has not happened yet.  Prosecutions are rare and if they occur, sentences are lenient. There are guidelines, updated in 2014 and it seems prosecutors are largely turning a blind eye where the deceased “reached a voluntary, clear, settled and informed decision” and the help offered was only of “minor encouragement or assistance”.

The latest case on assisted dying, heard in late June this year and widely reported, was that of Mr Noel Conway.  Mr Conway, a retired lecturer who has motor neurone disease, wanted the right to an assisted “peaceful and dignified” death, with those helping him immune from prosecution. The Court of Appeal refused his application, but not without some sympathy. The Court seemed to suggest that assisted dying would not be permanently ruled out for ever as long as extremely tight safeguards could be put in place to protect the “weak and vulnerable”.   Opponents of a repeal of the law say there cannot be adequate safeguards and that the only one that will work is to retain the complete ban on assisted dying. It would in any case be for Parliament to change the law, not the Courts.  Mr Conway hopes to take his case to the Supreme Court.

It is a difficult subject, but one we must continue to discuss. A report in The Times by a coalition of charities, led by Solicitors for the Elderly, has warned that a third of people in the UK have made no provision at all for old age, including creating a lasting power of attorney to cover their wishes on health and care. We are living longer lives, but not necessarily healthier ones.   The issue of consent is becoming more and more about the patients’ right to know and be fully informed about any treatment before they go ahead with it.  But when it comes to making an informed choice about their own death, many are prevented from doing just that and feel themselves, in Mr Conway’s word “entombed” and denied the right to retain dignity in death.

No-one should be pressurised or persuaded into thinking it would be best for everyone else if they weren’t here. Life is precious and we all want to and should, make as much of it as we possibly can.  But there those who are absolutely certain of their decision to go, reached voluntarily and independently after much research.  Are we right to insist that they must be kept alive, often at great personal cost and thereby frustrate their last wish and potentially extend their suffering?

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