Keir Starmer QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, looks a beefy sort of chap. He’s going to need to be, because he’s the one with his finger in the dyke.
Until last year, the law in England on homicide and suicide was clear. Homicide – the killing by one human being of another human being – is, except in a small number of clearly defined cases, a crime – murder (requires intent) or manslaughter. The related crime of attempted murder is just that – an attempt to murder. Killing oneself – suicide – was decriminalised by the Suicide Act 1961, although assisting – aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring – a suicide, remains a criminal act.
English Law thus has no concept of mercy killing, killing with ‘love in the heart’, or euthanasia. All of these actions remain, in law, unlawful killing, and so can only be murder or manslaughter. Like-wise, assisting a suicide, however well-intentioned, remains a criminal act. Or does it?
In law, it clearly does. But over the last few years, cracks have appeared in the legal barriers. It became clear that whatever the law might say, there were cases – notably those of relatives assisting their ‘loved ones’ to commit suicide abroad – where prosecution did not follow.
These cracks, and the uncertainty they caused, last year led Debbie Purdy to seek clarification in the High Court. The DPP was ordered to issue prosecution guidelines. Starmer duly obliged in September, and in so doing drilled a hole in the dyke. Assisting suicide remained illegal, but there were now circumstances – largely those where there was ‘love in the heart’ – where prosecution was most unlikely. The light, given certain circumstances, had changed from red to green; and a trickle began.
As a result, we are now in a most unstable situation. The dyke has been breached – and deliberately breached at that. A building tide of suicide assistants are pressing ever harder against the dyke, and it is only Starmer’s finger that is holding back the flow. Should his finger slip, as surely it will, then trickle will become a torrent, and then the torrent a flood.
Laws that say ‘you can’t do that; but we wont prosecute you if you do‘ don’t work. Law that is unenforced is not Law. The Suicide Act will be rewritten: and it is in that re-writing that we must exercise the greatest restraint; for we live at a time when the Dimbleby Lecturer shakes hands with death, and Thanatos walks on Main Street.