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UK woman loses suicide court challenge

  • Story Highlights
  • Multiple sclerosis sufferer fails in legal bid to clarify UK assisted suicide law
  • Debbie Purdy "disappointed and surprised" by judges refusal to interpret law
  • 45-year-old wanted to know at what point her husband would be breaking law
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- A woman who suffers from multiple sclerosis lost her legal bid Wednesday to clarify Britain's laws on assisted suicide.

Debbie Purdy and her husband Omar Puente pictured outside London's High Court.

Debbie Purdy and her husband Omar Puente pictured outside London's High Court.

Debbie Purdy, 45, had launched a High Court challenge to determine whether her husband would face prosecution if he helped her end her life before her conditioned worsened.

Purdy told reporters she was "disappointed and surprised" that the judges refused to interpret the 1961 Suicide Act, which says assisting someone in a suicide is a crime punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

Purdy, speaking from a wheelchair beside her husband Omar Puente, said she would appeal. She has said she wants the option of assisted suicide if her pain one day becomes unbearable.

Her case asked the judges to tell her at what point her husband would be breaking the law if she committed suicide with his help.

"I'm not prepared for Omar to break the law," she said. "How can we make sure that we act within the law without potential prison sentences if they won't tell us under what circumstances they would prosecute?"

The suicide act says only that anyone who "aids, abets, counsels or procures the suicide of another, or an attempt by another to commit suicide, shall be liable" to be jailed for as long as 14 years.

"What does this actually mean, and how is the discretion to prosecute actually exercised?" said Melissa Milner, a spokeswoman for Dignity in Dying, a charity that has worked on Purdy's case. "Does it mean booking tickets? Getting medical records? Pushing somebody's wheelchair on a plane? Do these matters amount to a criminal offense?"

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Dignity in Dying campaigns to give terminally ill patients the option of an assisted death so they "would not be forced to contemplate dying before they are ready," according to the group's Web site.

Wednesday's ruling comes amid a similar high-profile case in Britain.

Dan James, 23, died in an assisted suicide in September, 18 months after he became paralyzed in a rugby training session. He had traveled with his parents to Switzerland -- where assisted suicide is legal under some circumstances -- where he took his life.

British prosecutors are considering charges against his parents, who are now back in Britain.

Purdy, who lives in the northern English city of Bradford with her husband, was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple Sclerosis in 1995, when she was 31. She is still able to do normal activities like cooking, cleaning and shopping, but she knows her physical condition is rapidly deteriorating.

If her case is not resolved, Purdy said she may decide to go alone to Switzerland and commit suicide while she is still able to on her own. She said she would prefer making that journey much later, only once her condition deteriorates, so she can die with her husband by her side.

"I'll have to make a decision," she said. "I'm not prepared for Omar to face potential jail, because if they won't tell us in advance (that) he can do X, Y, and Z without risk of prosecution, I can't risk that."

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