Archbishop warns of ‘great dangers’ in assist suicide proposal

Keir Starmer / Archbishop Peter Smith
Keir Starmer / Archbishop Peter Smith


Commenting on an English proposal that could decriminalize many forms of assisted suicide, the Archbishop of Cardiff has warned that weakening the law carries “great dangers.” The law must remain “clear and evident to all,” he said.

Keir Starmer, England’s director of public prosecutions, has said that those who helped adults end their lives were unlikely to be prosecuted if they were “wholly motivated by compassion” for someone who is severely disabled or terminally ill, the Associated Press reports.

Starmer was forced to publish detailed guidance for prosecutors after Debbie Purdy, a 46-year-old with multiple sclerosis, sued to force the government to reveal in what circumstances those who assist in suicides would face criminal charges.

Purdy feared the prosecution of her husband if he helped her go to a Swiss suicide clinic.

The guidelines outlined 29 factors to be considered in the decision to prosecute. According to the Associated Press, they say someone would be more likely to be prosecuted if the suicide victim is under 18 or if the person assisting them is a member of a group that lobbies for assisted suicide.

Prosecution would also be more likely for someone who helps more than one person commit suicide or if the suicide was “pressured or maliciously encouraged.”

Charges would be less likely when the person assisting a suicide is a spouse or partner or if the person’s actions may be characterized as “reluctant assistance in the face of a determined wish on the part of the victim to commit suicide.”

Archbishop of Cardiff Peter Smith responded to the top prosecutor’s comments in a September 23 statement.

“The law against assisted suicide gives expression to a profound moral intuition about the value of every human life,” the archbishop said. “It exists to protect vulnerable people, and any weakening of that legal protection would carry with it great dangers.”

He said that Starmer’s statements also provide “helpful reassurance” by emphasizing that assisted suicide is still a criminal offense that authorities have a duty to investigate and also by making clear that no one can expect a guarantee of immunity from prosecutions.

“I would not be seeking to argue that every criminal case should be prosecuted – there can indeed be a particular combination of circumstances which will justify in a specific case a decision not to prosecute in the public interest,” Archbishop Smith continued.

“But such decisions can only be made on a case by case basis, and what is imperative is that any general guidance does not obscure the bright line of the law, which must remain clear and evident to all,” he emphasized.

The archbishop added that the national bishops’ conference will be studying the draft guidance and prepare its response.

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