Several writers were hanging out the flags yesterday. Fifty years ago, the Suicide Act was changed to make suicide legal and keep assisted suicide illegal. From August 1961 you were ‘allowed’ to take your own life without facing criminal charges if you messed it up. Have we really moved very far forward in 50 years?
One of the big changes in 50 years is maybe the development of ‘self-deliverance’ literature, beginning in 1980. The Scottish guide was followed by guides in America and other countries. The law had backed off from prosecuting unsuccessful suicides but was in no mood to offer help to achieve successful ones. That was left up to pioneers such as Dr Colin Brewer who first had the idea of a ‘how-to-die’ manual, Dr George Mair, who made it a reality, Derek Humphry, a journalist who made it a best-seller, and various groups like Exit who carried on researching the best way to peacefully end one’s own life in the face of unbearable and unrelievable suffering. (That knowledge is now collected together in Five Last Acts II.)
Other groups concentrated on fighting for legal change. It is arguable whether they have made a difference to the law, although some have mounted very credible campaigns to harness public opinion. Changing the law is about helping people in the future. Providing self-deliverance information is about helping people now.
The Suicide Act 1961 was effectively updated in 2010. But the changes were mostly a modernisation of the language, following the Crown Prosecution’s clarification of their prosecuting guidelines, and a furore in parliament over internet suicide sites. (Doing an act capable of encouraging or assisting suicide, such as providing information about suicide through the internet, is not in itself an offence, unless it is done with the intention to encourage or assist a suicide or a suicide attempt.) Assisting a suicide in any way is still an offence. The Act applies only to England & Wales, although prosecutions could easily follow for similar offences using different law in Scotland. Only now, some people won’t get prosecuted. People that weren’t in the position in 1961 of booking plane tickets to help someone get to Dignitas in Switzerland for assisted suicide, for instance.
The law is still a mess. Just a bit less of a mess than it was. Only a bit . . .
Policy for Prosecutors in Respect of Cases of Encouraging or Assisting Suicide (CPS)
Assisted Suicide after Purdy: The Unresolved Issue by Michael Hirst (Criminal Law Review)
An Abortive Consultation on Assisted Suicide – article by lawyer Francis Bennion
James Harris and Sarah Wootton – Dignity in Dying responses
Suicide Act 1961 amended by Coroners and Justice Act 2009
nb.: for original wording of the Act, please see Law Links in right hand column
Timeline of literature on how to die with dignity
1980 How to Die With Dignity
1991 Final Exit
1993 Departing Drugs
1995 Beyond Final Exit
2007 Five Last Acts
2010 Five Last Acts II