Right-to-die campaigner Debbie Purdy passes away

Debbie Purdy wanted to be sure Omar Puente would not be prosecuted if he helped her die. Picture: AFP
Debbie Purdy wanted to be sure Omar Puente would not be prosecuted if he helped her die. Picture: AFP
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DEBBIE Purdy, the “right-to-die” campaigner who won a landmark ruling to clarify the law on assisted suicide, has died.

Ms Purdy had primary progressive multiple sclerosis (MS) for almost 20 years.

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The 51-year-old from Bradford had been in a Marie Curie hospice in the city where she had been refusing food. She died on 23 December.

In 2009, she won a ruling in the House of Lords to ensure her husband, Omar Puente, would not face prosecution if he helped her to end her life. Her campaigning resulted in guidelines on assisted suicide being published by the government.

In her last interview, Ms Purdy spoke of the daily realities of her condition. “It’s painful and it’s uncomfortable and it’s frightening and it’s not how I want to live,” she said. “If someone could find a cure for MS I would be the first person in line.

“It’s not a matter of wanting to end my life, it’s a matter of not wanting my life to be this.”

Last night, campaign group Dignity in Dying described her as a “valued campaigner and friend”. Chief executive Sarah Wootton said: “Debbie wanted choice and control over her death should she consider her suffering unbearable. Ultimately she was seeking peace of mind that her wishes would be respected, but also, crucially, that her decisions would not result in the potential imprisonment of her husband.

“She rejected the option of travelling abroad to die, and instead, wanting to die in this country, chose to hasten her death by stopping eating. Debbie rallied against the hypocrisy of the current law, which turns a blind eye to people travelling abroad to die, whilst seeking to protect them by threatening the imprisonment of their loved ones after their death”

The group said her victory meant the law was changed so a loved one acting wholly on compassionate grounds and in an amateur capacity was unlikely to be prosecuted for helping a person with a clear and settled intention to die. Her legacy was one of “greater clarity in the law and an increased awareness of the need for greater choice at the end of life”.

The landmark legal victory did not change the law, but it forced the authorities to clarify what the legislation meant in practice. In 2009, the Law Lords ordered the Director of Public Prosecutions to specify when this might be the case after ruling the law was unclear.

That prompted then director Keir Starmer to publish guidelines in February 2010 setting out what was taken into consideration when weighing up a prosecution. He said a range of factors should be taken into account, including the motivations of the person assisting and the victim’s ability to reach a clear and informed decision about their suicide. But it remains an offence to encourage or assist a suicide or suicide attempt in England and Wales.

Green MSP Patrick Harvie, who has claimed substantial public support “in principle” for assisted suicide in Scotland, said: “Debbie Purdy’s persistence as a campaigner should be recognised by everyone, whatever view we take of the principle of assisted suicide.

“The same lack of clarity she resolved for England and Wales remains a problem in Scotland. In presenting Margo MacDonald’s bill to parliament in the new year, I will argue that a clearly regulated system of assisted suicide is the best way of achieving clarity, while respecting the right of every person to make choices on their own terms..”

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