Guidelines on whether people should be prosecuted for assisting suicide will be released by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) in the UK next month and Australian laws should be similarly clarified, prominent euthanasia campaigner Dr Philip Nitschke told Lawyers Weekly.
A UK woman, Debbie Purdy, made legal history last week when the Law Lords unanimously agreed that the DPP should issue a policy setting out when those assisting suicide can expect to face prosecution.
Purdy, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, wants to go to Switzerland to end her life but was worried that her husband would be prosecuted for helping her on his return to Britain.
Nitschke, founder of assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia advocacy organisation Exit International, said it was not possible to obtain the same clarification through the courts in Australian.
"My understanding is there is no mechanism in place where an Australian citizen can refer something for assessment - a judgement in principle to occur - before some act takes place," he said.
"So, whereas it might be possible in the United Kingdom to do this -- and I might say I was very surprised to see that it could be -- we don't have that same option. So I guess we have to wait around until politicians themselves decide to make some sort of clarification of the law and they are certainly showing no interest in doing that."
Since 2002, 117 people from Britain have ended their lives at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland where assisted suicide is legal.
Nitschke said seven people from Australia have also taken the "Swiss option", including Dr John Elliott, who was dying of multiple myeloma, and who Nitschke helped make the trip to Switzerland in 2007.
"The fact that we all had helped him onto the aeroplane, that is, his wife and myself ... there was no suggestion that we would be in breach of Australian law because of that. Although it has come up again in a rather somewhat more stark way in recent weeks," he said.
Currently, Nitschke is attempting to help a person in Perth who is a full quadriplegic and wants to make the trip to Switzerland to end his life. The man is obtaining legal advice about the risks for those involved with helping him, said Nitschke.
"I have been over in Perth talking to him and talking to the lawyers in Perth about what are the actual risks here for any of us who want to be involved, in other words by helping him get his passport, organising his ticket, organising the rather extensive support that he needs to get on the aeroplane and the general feeling from some of the legal advice that he has been given over there is that this is a dangerous course to take because of the fact that there is a chance - perhaps more than a chance, a likelihood - that there would be some action taken against someone who went into those steps," he said.
"I think the recent ruling in the UK will go some way towards taking a lot of the fear out of it, but, certainly, his plans have been somewhat stymied by a very cautious interpretation of the legislation."
Head of the UK Crown Prosecution Service Keir Starmer has said, however, that the broad principles of his new guidelines would apply equally to acts of assisted suicide planned and carried out in the UK and not only those that occurred abroad.
"This policy is going to cover all assisted suicides. The same broad principles will apply. They've got to apply to all acts, in the jurisdiction or out of it. We won't have separate rules for Dignitas," he told UK newspaper The Daily Telegraph.
Nitschke said that the guidelines were a big step towards an ultimate answer to the issue in the United Kingdom
"People are wondering whether or not [these guidelines] herald effectively a decriminalisation of assisted suicide in Britain which, would be a major thing. In any event, it seems clear that whatever the DPP says, [the issue] will probably find its way into the House of Commons now for some ultimate ruling, which I guess might in fact mean at last there might be an answer to this issue in the United Kingdom," he said.
"Instead of going travelling to Zurich [in Switzerland], maybe one can simply travel to London. Certainly I might be suggesting that to some of our members this might be that the door is opening in Britain for the first time."
- Sarah Sharples