British law and assisted suicide.

This case reported in The Guardian on Friday is very worrying. I almost want to put it down to bad reporting and say some salient facts must have been omitted, because as things stand, the law and court come across as absurd.

To sum up: a man bought his drunken ‘friend’ petrol in the knowledge that he intended to use it to burn himself alive. He was subsequently convicted for assisted suicide, and has been sentenced to twelve years in jail. The judge complains in his statement about a clear lack of compassion in the choice to buy and deliver the petrol.

The problem here is pretty obvious. We don’t generally consider it the role of the state to enforce the duty to be a good friend. If I treat you badly in spite of a long-standing bond between us, that may make me a bad person. But short of physically assaulting you or something similarly clear-cut, the police don’t knock on my door just because I act like a dick. Someone can’t call 999 and have me fined if I stand you up when we’re supposed to meet for coffee.

Okay, you might think, but the act in question here was evidently far graver than something trivial like missing a drink. This ‘friend’ facilitated attempted suicide.

Well, indeed, but we’ve got to remember that irrespective of a longstanding social norm against the acceptability of this act, it is, in law, perfectly legal, and presumably not only for practical reasons. We do tend to think that under rights to self-determination and so on, if someone wishes to make such choices then they are to be left alone, however ill-advised those choices may seem.

So what this boils down to is the law prosecuting someone for being a bad friend that facilitated the performance of a perfectly legal act. Insofar as the law is as indifferent to someone’s decision to burn themselves as they are to my decision to eat kale in the morning, why doesn’t it ignore the petrol-deliverer in the same way it doesn’t impede my Ocado delivery van?

Perhaps this just strikes at foolishness inherent in the law against assisted suicide. Even if you think that there is some place for such a law, you could and should still worry about ‘assistance’ being read so loosely here that we’re no longer talking about feeding pills to people (or analogously in this case, ourselves pouring the petrol and lighting the flame). Now, assistance means just knowingly buying the tools which the person then uses entirely independently. So if I claimed to be suicidal and simply ask you to buy me a rope, British law is now saying you could be setting yourself up for a decade in jail. And again, this in spite of the fact that my use of the rope to hang myself would be legal.

Are there any other examples of laws which forbid us from facilitating further legal acts, other than on this one issue, where all coherency and common sense seems to evaporate?

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