Friday, 21 November 2008


The next meeting
is on
Tuesday 25th November
in room
1pm and 2pm.

Anyone studying Sociology, Criminology or both at Keele is welcome to attend

This week we will discuss criminal punishments:

· Community Punishments: How effective are the punishments of tagging and ASBOs?

· Prison Sentences: Does prison prevent or encourage further crimes to be committed?

· Is it justified that criminals who reflect good behaviour within prison be allowed to have their sentence reduced?

· Is the shortening of criminal sentences more justifiable in some cases more than others? For example, do you think that both convicted murders and thieves equally deserve to have their sentence revoked if both criminals show the same amount of good behaviour while within the confines of a prison?

· Finally, is it fair to punish every criminal in the same way? For example, would giving a parking or speeding fine to a person in a lower socio-economic class have the same consequences as giving a fine to a person within a higher socio-economic class? Should penalties distinguish between class variances and punish accordingly?

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Should there be a limit to our faith in limits?

By Dr Helen Wells

Proposals announced by the government today suggest that drivers caught driving at twice the speed limit could receive an automatic driving ban. There are also, however, discussions about whether or not ‘minor speeders’ caught just over the speed limit should receive less points than they do currently – two points instead of three. In the same consultation, the government is also keen to explore the idea that formal ‘drug-drive’ limits should be established to try to help curb the increasing numbers of people killed or seriously injured in crashes where drugs were felt to be a contributing factor.

As expected, the usual pressure and interest groups have spoken out in favour of, or against the proposals, rehearsing the usual arguments about unfairly taxing respectable drivers or, on the other hand, accusing the government of trivialising smaller infringements of the limit.

What strikes me about these proposals, and suggestions that we could soon see ‘drugs breathalysers’ to make prosecutions for drug driving easier, is that they continue to place a great deal of faith in the notion of 'the limit' – as though it had some inherent quality that meant it represented an accurate assessment of the relative levels of danger caused in any particular driving situation.

This faith is demonstrated by campaigns like ‘it’s 30 for a reason’ and the dramatic TV advert where a little girl gets killed by a car travelling at 35mph and then ‘only’ very seriously injured by a car travelling at the 30mph . One wonders if it would not be better to advise motorists that, in such situations, they should drive at whatever speed means that they would not hit the child in the first place – not that 30 is some magic number that, if we all stick to it, means we are inevitably driving ‘safely’. The advert would seem to suggest that 30mph was, in fact, too fast in the circumstances, and that ‘the reason’ ‘it’ is ‘30’ is that it’s technically and administratively far more convenient than if we operated some contextualised, ‘common sense’ interpretation of risky driving practices.

The idea that 29mph is unquestionably safe, while 31mph is inevitably dangerous surely seems somewhat oversimplistic to any driver who has driven past a school gate at 3.15 pm and past the same gate again at 3.15 am.

But the limit is a crucial aspect of the use of ‘techno-fixes’ like the speed camera, and also the any kind of ‘drug-ometer’ as has been suggested today. The speed camera relies upon complex situations being converted into simple dichotomies of safe/unsafe behaviour in order to be able to function and therein, I think, lies the source of a lot of drivers problems with them.

Similarly, a drug-ometer, like an alcohol breathalyser will, presumably, have to operate on some notion of ‘safe’ and ‘dangerous’ levels of drugs, and to do so it will have to ignore issues such as the age, weight, build, health, and previous exposure/using history of the person being tested. Inevitably, as with drink-driving, some people under ‘the limit’ will be a danger to themselves and others while, theoretically, some people over ‘the limit’ could be driving safely. Hence the calls that resurface periodically for a zero-limit for alcohol while driving – a limit that many people chose to self-impose for the very reason that they know that they react differently at different times to different amounts of alcohol.

The Association of Chief Police Officers Head of Roads Policing once suggested to me that the ideal Police tool for tackling road safety problems was an ‘impairmentometer’. This tool, he enthused, would be able to measure not just alcohol, but drug levels, tiredness, eyesight problems, and seemingly limitless (excuse the pun) other potential causes of road crashes.

While such techno-fixes and gadgets are no doubt appealing on ‘efficiency’ and ‘economy’ grounds, being more reliable and cheaper than a human tasked with doing the same job, I would query how we judge their ‘effectiveness’. In reconceptualising the problem to render it ‘techno-fixable’, as we seem to do every time we enforce a limit out of context, are we actually still tackling the problem we set out to tackle? We could wait to find out whether we cut road deaths – or not. Or we could be a bit more canny in designing our interventions to make sure that the tools we have for dealing with the problems on our roads don’t neglect reality for the sake of simplicity.

You can read more about techno-fixing road safety problems here.

Monday, 17 November 2008

On the Perversity of Human Violence

By Dr Mark Featherstone

In response to Professor Stenning’s commentary on the natural origins of human violence, I think we must consider the history of theories on the subject and differentiate between human and animal aggression. On the subject of the parental killing of offspring, we must recognise that no animal kills its own, since it is not possible to talk about murder in the natural world because the idea of murder is a human construct, without natural purpose related to scarcity of food, territorial disputes and so on. On the other hand, as various writers from Freud onwards have shown, humans murder and torture each other for no natural, or rational purpose for that matter, because of psychological perversions caused when nature meets culture in human form.

On that basis, I would suggest that there is very little that is natural about human violence, which is entirely different to similar behaviours found in the natural world, because human aggression is filtered through culture and civilization. For Freud, especially, this combination of nature and culture made humans the most savage creatures on the planet. Given that they are capable of reason, and have lifted themselves above the natural world, human violence always entails some kind of fall, hence the legal category of murder. This propensity to fall from the heights of civilization, which makes people comparable to Gods, is precisely what makes them behave like Devils, in ways that no other animal ever could, simply because no other animal could ever conceive of the kinds of prolonged, sustained, forms of violence and torture that characterise properly human forms of violence.

There is, of course, another form of human violence which is entirely related to explosions of unconscious, pre-rational, aggression, but I do not think that the form of violence suffered by Baby P could be placed in that category. I think that what makes the case of Baby P truly unbearable is that he was the victim of the kind of perverse human violence, which led people to invent ideas of demons and devils in the first place, rather than the kind of natural violence, which is part of the metabolism of nature, which is defined by laws such as ‘survival of the fittest’, ‘eat or be eaten’, and so on.

We now know that one of the main perpetrators of the horrendous violence against Baby P was obsessed with Nazi symbolism. This confirmed my view of the case, which was that Baby P was the victim of terrible, human, violence, since it perfectly coincided with Zygmunt Bauman’s view that Nazism represents the embodiment of human savagery, which combines nature and culture in a new perverse form. Given this position, I doubt it is simply coincidental that one of the men who caused the death of Baby P was interested in Nazism, but more likely that his own psychopathological condition was somehow reflected in the monstrous evil represented by Nazi political iconography and that he was attracted to such symbolism for this reason. For these reasons, I would reject the realist claim that there is something natural about child killings, such as that of Baby P, because I think that the danger of such a position is that it explains such events too easily and makes them seem somehow inevitable, in the way that one would recognise the natural inevitability of a male lion killing a group of cubs in order to become the alpha male of a pride for instance.

Instead, I would argue that we need to enculture instances of horrendous human violence, such as the case of Baby P, regarding them as products of socially constructed individual perversions, in order that we can think them through and try to resolve them. From this point of view, then, I would resist the claim that is not completely natural, or pre-rational, to nurture and care for one’s own children, even though this biological imperative may be strained in the natural world, but instead say that it is human culture, and human civilization, which has introduced the kinds of inconceivable violence that are unknown in the natural world, by simultaneously transforming people into Gods and Devils. It is against the perverse potential of this world, the human-built world, that I think we must oppose the natural ethic to nurture children, rather than say that in order to prevent more cases like Baby P we must further rationalise, or humanise, the base savagery of the nature in people. This latter view suggests that the death of Baby P was an example of primitive, regressive, behaviour on the part of those who caused his death. I do not think there is anything primitive or regressive about torture because animals tend not to torture each other.

Despite all of this theoretical explanation, what escapes me about the Baby P case is how anybody could torture and torment a 17 month old child. In the natural world the imperative to nurture one’s child, which is essential to ensure the survival of the species, may well be hampered by natural conditions that cause the parent to kill its offspring, but this is not a problem most people living in rich western nations must confront. Given that one cannot really explain such violence on the basis of natural, environmental, pressures, is it then possible to explain such horrendous episodes through human rationality? I doubt this is feasible because nobody could consider the prolonged torture of a young child rational. If this is, in fact the case, and both nature and reason fail to explain such episodes, what are we left with apart from the unholy fusion of nature and culture in the kinds of violent perversions psychoanalysts explore? Even though I think that this is the case, and that examples of horrendous crimes, such as the killing of Baby P, are the result of perversions of the human condition caught somewhere between nature and culture, this does not mean that I, or anybody else, can understand such events. We may well be able to conceptualise such violence, through psychoanalytic, psycho-sexual, ideas such as sadism and necrophilia, and sociological notions, such as socialisation and the cycle of abuse, but it is not easy to understand them from the outside, precisely because I think that they run counter to the normal, natural, tendency of parents to nurture their own children.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Baby P: a response to Mark Featherstone's blog entry

By Professor Philip Stenning

I have a suspicion that Mark Featherstone's (and perhaps Levinas') underlying assumption (that a parent "naturally" puts his or her child first) may be incorrect. In the animal world, parental killing of offspring at or soon after birth is not uncommon. So if such protection of offspring is not "natural" for animals, it's not easy to see why it should necessarily be "natural" for humans. And of course, we know that infanticide (defined in law as the killing of a child by its mother who is lactating) is not uncommon among humans. It is also an established fact that those who are at greatest risk of homicide are children under 5 years of age, and that parents or step-parents are frequently the perpetrators.

Of course, if we assume that "putting one's child first" is "natural" (rather than just normal) human behaviour, any parent who kills or inflicts such extreme violence on their child must by definition be acting "unnaturally", and this allows us to characterise them as "not human" or as a "monster" or "devil", and to conclude (as you seem to) that such killing is not humanly understandable or explicable.

But if we resist this kind of thinking, and accept that killing of one's child is not "unnatural" in this sense, trying to understand or explain such a killing becomes a matter of trying to understand /explain why the parent has departed from such an established social/ethical norm. This opens up all kinds of possible explanations, such as extreme intoxication, mental illness, delusion or hallucination (there's a famous English case in which a father put his baby on the fire under the delusion that it was a log), supposed divine instruction (there have been many cases - and not just in the Old Testament - in which parents have claimed that God told them to kill their children), or some failure of socialisation against violence (e.g. if the parent was a victim of such extreme violence as a child).

Of course, every right-minded person will be horrified by the circumstances of Baby P's death, and no decent person could accept or excuse the prolonged torture and killing of such a helpless baby. But I think that characterising such behaviour as "unnatural" may not be helpful as far as seeking possible explanations for it, which may in turn help us to prevent similar cases from occurring in the future.

On the Case of Baby P

By Dr Mark Featherstone

I thought about writing this blog entry on Tuesday, but wavered because I could not decide whether it was ethical to write about the Baby P case on a weblog. Surely a blog cannot adequately represent this case or do justice to Baby P who spent much of his short life being beaten and abused? In the end I decided to write the entry on the basis that I think academics have a responsibility on talk and write about such horrendous events, but not include any links because it seems ethically wrong to support any sensationalism in this case. Although we may never be able to do such events justice, and I am sure I cannot do the Baby P case justice for reasons I will explain, commemorating them by remaining silent will do nothing to stop them happening again.

But what can we say about the Baby P case? When I first read about Baby P I found the story of his short life almost unbearable. Beyond this emotional reaction, I found his story impossible to understand. How could this happen? How could anybody torture a 17 month old child in this way? Given that I could not understand how the Baby P case could happen, I knew I would have a hard time writing about it simply because I would not be able to explain anything about it. Over the course of Wednesday I tried to understand why I could not explain the Baby P case, but at the same time felt that I should say something about it.

I now know why I cannot say anything about Baby P, but feel that I should say something about him regardless. Let me explain. The French writer Immanuel Levinas said that we have an ‘infinite responsibility’ for other people. This is his idea of what it is to behave ethically. We have to put other people first. I have studied the works of Levinas for a number of years and thought I understood his theories. I now know that I understood his theories theoretically, which is not really the point of his theory. I now think that it was only when I became a father that I really grasped what it means to put another person first on a pre-rational level, which is what Levinas meant by ‘ethics’.

I am sure every parent feels the same - that their child comes first is never in question. There is no rational debate in the parent’s head about this issue – there is no decision. That the child comes first seems like a pre-rational fact. The parent lives for the child and if they were asked to choose between their own life and that of their child they would choose to save the life of the child without even thinking about it. After a couple of years of parenthood, I think this is what Levinas meant by the idea of the ‘infinite responsibility for the other’. I cannot conceive what it means to ‘feel’ this way about strangers who, incidentally, Levinas thinks we would have to extend infinite responsibility to in order to inhabit a properly ethical society because I think one would have to be a saint in order to put every other person before oneself in the way that one does one’s own child.

However, it is now hard for me to understand how one cannot feel this way about one’s own child because such a reaction seems completely natural to me. I cannot imagine how it could be otherwise. This is precisely why I cannot explain the case of Baby P. Since I believe that it is natural or, because sociologists do not usually use the term natural, perhaps I should say pre-rational, to put one’s child before oneself, I cannot easily understand or conceive how one could put oneself before one’s own child, never mind torment, torture, and murder them over a period of months. I wonder whether this is why the case of Baby P has inspired such reactions in people: we feel horror that a small child who presumably could not even speak was exposed to violence and torture and deep sadness that he suffered for so long and never knew what it was to live in a normal, meaning pre-rational, family environment where he took priority over his parents who put him first. As a leftist sociologist, I am suspicious of new right politics about the need for normal families, meaning Mum, Dad, and kids, but the kind of normal ‘infinite responsibility’ I am talking about is not simply about ‘keeping a miserable family together for the sake of the kids etc.’, but rather a deep pre-rational connection between parent and child that we might not recognise amid the noise of everyday life, but that remains a deep truth of family life nonetheless.

If this is, in fact, the case and there is some kind of deep, unconscious, connection binding parent to child, then it is inconceivable that anybody could torture their own child over a period of many months. Of any crime, and there are many that are difficult to understand, the majority including children, I wonder if violence against one’s own offspring is the most difficult to conceive. But I do not think that it is enough to say that such violence is completely beyond understanding because such a denial of the human ability to reason out an event means that there is nothing we can do to prevent it happening again. This is not acceptable. We must understand if we are to prevent this kind of violence. Given the need to try to understand, then, how can we even begin to think about the case of Baby P? All I can say in this blog entry is that if it is indeed the case that the link between parent and child is entirely natural or pre-rational, then it may be the case that the sadistic violence of a parent against a completely innocent child is a perverse effect of rational society that desensitizes people to violence and that this kind of terrible event is the result of the socialisation of particular individuals into a reality characterised by torture, abuse, and inconceivable levels of inhumanity.

It is hard to reconcile oneself to the existence of the kind of violence characteristic of the case of Baby P, and any kind of consideration of such violence will leave one numb, but if we ever want to understand such cases in order to try to contribute to the effort to ensure that they do not happen again, then we must think about them on the level of a sociological analysis of perversity, violence, and psychopathology. In the past people thought about such horrible episodes through religious ideas. They invoked ideas of demons, the devil, and evil in order to explain these episodes to themselves. However, I think that the problem with these accounts is that they fill in for the fact that people have never been able to understand the kind of violence seen in the Baby P case by conjuring notions of supernatural evil which ultimately distract our attention from the very real horrors that people perpetrate. We need to recognise this fact. It is people, people living in society, who commit these crimes, not devils.

In Laurence Rickel’s book on the cultural history of the Devil, we are told that the Devil is a psychological symbol of the disciplinary father who prevents us getting what we want during our childhood (‘wait until your father comes home!’). Although the traditional psychoanalytic interpretation of the father is the disciplinary figure who denies the child their heart’s desire, and thus socialises them into society where we have to share, it may be that the real horror, the real evil, of the figure of the Devil, the embodiment of evil, resides in the incomprehensible, inconceivable, figure of the father who does not put his child first, and at the same time socialises them into society, but rather turns their life into a living Hell, systematically tormenting, torturing, and murdering them. Given that I cannot understand the case of Baby P, beyond saying why I cannot understand it, it make perfect sense to me that people would invent the Devil to represent such horror.

But I have noted that the Devil is not enough. Unfortunately the metaphysical figure of the Devil is a fantasy meant to make us feel better about the horrors humans commit against each other. It is people, real people living in society, who commit such horrendous crimes. I cannot pretend that I can explain such events. I cannot explain the case of Baby P, because conceiving such violence is beyond my language and may be beyond language itself, but I think that we must talk about this event and struggle to understand it because Baby P should not be forgotten. His memory should help us prevent such violence ever happening to another child. Although bureaucratic change is, of course, essential it is not enough because it will only ever deal with events that are already occurring. What we really need is to prioritise sociological-criminological study to enable us to understand what is it that produces such horrendous violence in family situations that should be based on the infinite responsibility of parent to child. We need to prioritise this perspective in order that we can address the social roots of such perverse violence and prevent other children having to suffer the fate of Baby P.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Obama, Anti-Bush

By Dr Mark Featherstone

I was interested to see Steve Bell’s Anti-Bush response to Obama’s victory (see previous blog entry) because it nicely captures the political iconography of Dubya and illustrates the essential ‘negativity’ of the utopianism of the new President-elect.

But what is the negativity of the utopianism of Obama (click the linked title, Obama, Anti-Bush)?

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Star-spangled shredder...

By Dr Rebecca Leach

And I think just because we can, we should all have a look at Steve Bell's fantastic cartoon...

Obama's Win: an instance of social change?

By Dr Dana Rosenfeld

So Barack Obama won – not by a landslide, but close enough, and certainly by a greater margin than many had predicted. This was, by all accounts, a historically unique election campaign. It was arguably the longest and the most expensive presidential campaign in American history, and one of the most contentious. It had on its slate the first African-American presidential candidate (and one of the youngest), one of the oldest candidates, and the second female vice-presidential candidate in American presidential politics. It galvanized the country, producing what may be the largest voter turnout in United States history; it brought young voters (aged 18-29 – a notoriously hard-to-mobilize group) to the polls in unprecedented numbers. It brought African-American voters to the polls in unprecedented numbers too: 97% of African-Americans registered to vote in the state of Georgia did vote. People who had never voted before – and this included people in their 80s, 90s, and above – voted in this election. It crossed party lines, racial lines, class lines, and gender lines in unexpected ways. It brought race to the fore, and, against the backdrop of the dire economic changes of the last few months, pushed the Iraq and Afghanistan wars into the background. It is an election that will inspire discussions and debates for years to come. For we sociologists, there are many questions we can ask, but perhaps the most obvious one is: does this election, and its results, signify social change?

Obama ran on a platform of change: the country, he argued, needed new policies and new directions (and the country clearly agreed). But his platform was also based on a return to long-standing American ideals: a social contract forged on the basis of citizenship and not on gender, race, class, or other social divisions. In America, he argued (and the Republicans did not disagree, not could they), opportunities are open to all. So did Obama’s election change America, or represent it? Will Americans see his election as a change in the country, or as an example of its core character?

This was an election with consequences that were, only a few years ago, unthinkable. A relative political newcomer, and an African-American one at that, will now occupy the White House with his family. Again, is this a cause or an effect of social change? Is an African-American family in the White House, or an African-American president taking the oath of office or meeting with other world leaders, really a discordant image? Do Americans really care about the race of its elected officials? Was this election about race to begin with? Did people vote or against for Obama because of his race, or for or against McCain because of his? As with most instances of political (or any other kind of) decision-making, they are not yes-or-no questions; rather, they signify complex beliefs and understandings about competence, experience, integrity, the relevance of one’s personal biography and attributes to one’s ability to carry out one’s duties, and the like. In a very real sense, these are issues that inform all of our lives, as we make claims about ourselves: campaign, as it were, for jobs and social status and opportunities and even personal connections. These are matters very close to the heart of a core sociological interest in impression management and the production of social identity.

It could be argued, and has been, that Obama actively worked to make his campaign not about race; Obama’s race was noteworthy, but not a critical component of his worthiness as a candidate. Obama and his team – and, indeed, the entire country – worked to produce Obama’s race as relevant in its consequences (we now have an African-American president, and presidential family), but not relevant to those deciding for whom to cast their vote. In other words, Obama’s race was relevant because it was inherently irrelevant – that Obama got elected proved that race could be placed in the background, seen as an important element of self but not as a deal-breaker. In the end, Americans came together around economic issues; race was, it turned out, a much less significant criterion for voting decision-making than people had initially feared.

This is not to rob the African-American community of its hard-earned victory, or to dilute this victory’s social, political, cultural, and even emotional importance. In the aftermath of the devastating consequences of Hurricane Katrina (which was the disruption – the Bush administration’s failure to respond in anything approximating a responsible way was the disaster), an African-American president with such a strong popular backing is essential for rebuilding America’s image abroad, and for mending internal rifts. The African-American community has endured endless and unspeakable marginalization and worse over the past centuries, and Obama’s win reflects decades of this community’s dedicated political organizing, from the local and community level to corporate boardrooms and the halls of state and federal government. But the issue of how race played out in this election – how it was framed and used, the connections it forged, its symbolic value, and its social, political and cultural consequences – is, as with most social phenomena, extremely complex and, of course, sociologically fascinating.
Dissertation topic, anyone?

America’s Hope

By Dr Mark Featherstone

Early this morning British people learned that Americans had elected Barack Obama president. In many respects it is possible to liken Obama’s victory to that of Tony Blair in the 1997 General Election. Akin to Blair, who was elected off the back of the view that ‘things could only get better’ and a deep sense that Britain could not take any more Conservatism, Obama’s surge to the White House has been sustained by his understanding that what Americans wanted after eight years of Dubya was ‘change’.

However, beyond this basic similarity, which it is possible to say defines more or less all elections in two party states, comparisons end. Despite his carefully managed ‘mondeo man’ image, which ensured that Blair was simultaneously popular with ‘every man’ and also able to escape criticism which would have destroyed lesser politicians (i.e., those who cannot disappear back into the mass when the going gets tough, on the basis of their status as Boorstinian pseudo-individuals), Blair was always an establishment figure.

The same cannot really be said for Obama. Even though he has passed through some of America’s elite institutions – Columbia, Harvard, Chicago – it is impossible to say that Obama is a member of the American establishment for one key reason: he is black. Given the views of contemporary sociologists, such as Loic Wacquant and Douglas Massey, who have written about the completely segregated nature of American society and, in Massey’s case reflected upon ‘American apartheid’, we cannot underestimate the significance of Obama’s rise to the position of President. In my view, the events of yesterday, 4th November, were reflective of the kind of utopian moments Jay Winter talks about in his study of particular episodes which have changed the course of history.

Centrally, Winter conditions his study of these utopian moments, which include the universal declaration of human rights in 1948 and the student revolt in 1968, with a discussion of the dystopias of Stalinism and Nazism, in order to show that in many respects hope and change emerges from the darkest periods of history. There is no doubt that Obama’s victory, and all the utopian talk surrounding hope and change, has similarly been conditioned by a dark period of American politics, presided over by Dubya, who has recently been discussed as the worst American president in history.

Whether Obama can deliver on his promise to change America, and sort through the wreckage left behind by Bush, will very much depend on whether he is able to convert the utopian rhetoric, which has carried him to the White House, into real political practice.



The next meeting for Sociology and Criminology Society is on Tuesday 11th November in room CBA1.078/079, between 1pm and 2pm.

This meeting will debate whether particular illegal acts, should be made legal. Three main aspects will be debated:

What do you think would be the consequences of making these currently illegal acts, legal?

1. Prostitution – Should brothels be legalised in Britain?

2. Drug Taking – Drugs such as cannabis, have been known to aid medical conditions such as cancer and multiple sclerosis. Should certain drugs be made legal and easily available?

3. Euthanasia – Repeatedly we find in the news, like recently, cases in which individuals wish their life to end, often for reasons of ill health. However, this act could end up with a prison sentence. Who should decide the future of an individual, the state, medical professionals, or the individual themself?

The last meeting was really good fun and insightful, so we hope to see you there on Tuesday. The more the merrier!!

Monday, 3 November 2008

Purdy v. Director of Public Prosecutions [Divisional Court, October 29th, 2008]

By Philip Stenning

The Purdy application to the Divisional Court, which was rejected in its decision released on October 29th, has received a considerable amount of news coverage in recent weeks.

For the last 13 years, Debbie Purdy, who is now 45, has been suffering from primary progressive multiple sclerosis. This is a particularly aggressive form of the disease in which, unlike the more benign “relapse-remission” form of it under which people may live quite normal lives for many years, the sufferer never goes into remission - the disease just gets progressively worse until the person eventually becomes completely incapacitated and dies. Purdy’s illness is already quite far advanced, and she has been confined to a wheelchair for the last seven years. Progress of this disease is quite unpredictable, but it is quite possible that Purdy does not have many more years to live.

She has decided that she would like the option of “death with dignity” if her condition deteriorates to the point where she no longer has any real quality of life and experiences extreme pain or discomfort. But because of the nature of her disease, by the time that she gets to the stage at which she would wish to die rather than continue to live, she would almost certainly not be able to commit suicide unaided. While suicide is not illegal in the UK, aiding and abetting someone to commit suicide is (Section 2(1) of the Suicide Act, 1961). To fulfil her wishes at that point, therefore, she would need to go to a country like Switzerland in which “assisted suicide” is not illegal.

Purdy is concerned, however, that if she asks her husband to travel with her to Switzerland for an assisted suicide (an organisation called Dignitas provides this service there), and he goes with her and stays with her during the procedure, he may subsequently be prosecuted when he returns to the UK afterwards. The punishment prescribed in the Suicide Act for aiding and abetting suicide is a prison sentence of up to 14 years.

The Act requires the consent of the Director of public Prosecutions for such a prosecution, and the law requires the DPP to consider, in addition to whether there is sufficient evidence to justify a prosecution, whether such a prosecution would be “in the public interest”. Although the Code for Crown Prosecutors sets out general criteria for determining the public interest in making prosecutorial decisions, the DPP has not identified any specific criteria to govern the exercise of his discretion in giving or withholding consent for a prosecution under the Suicide Act (as he has done, for instance for prosecutions for domestic violence, football hooliganism, and some driving offences). So Purdy applied to the court for a declaration requiring the DPP to issue such guidelines, and in particular to provide some indication as to whether, if her husband merely accompanied her to Switzerland and held her hand while she died, he would be likely to be prosecuted. Evidence at the hearing indicated that in the last 6 years, “at least 90 United Kingdom citizens have travelled abroad for the purpose of lawfully obtaining an assisted suicide, but that in no single instance has a prosecution resulted, notwithstanding some investigations by police.”

The judgment of the court is quite technical (it included an appeal to provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights), but the bottom line of it is that the court held that it could not force the DPP to issue such guidelines, that the general guidelines in the Code for Crown Prosecutors are sufficient to ensure that the DPP’s decisions under the Suicide Act cannot and will not be “arbitrary”, and that it is only Parliament which has the authority to clarify the law in the way Purdy would like.

The law thus so far leaves people like Purdy with a really difficult dilemma, and she argues that it is discriminatory, in that it denies to people like her the right to self-determination (in this case, to choose the time and manner of her death, and to have her husband present with her at that time without fear that he will be punished afterwards - a risk she’s not prepared to take), which others who are able to commit suicide without assistance enjoy. In addition to addressing this substantive issue, the case also is an important decision with respect to the nature and scope of prosecutorial discretion in this country, and the extent to which courts are or are not prepared to intervene with respect to it.

The court gave Purdy permission to appeal its decision. But of course, even if she pursued such an appeal, she might not live long enough to benefit from a favourable outcome. Her only other recourse, it seems, would be to take her campaign to Parliament to try to persuade legislators to change the law in her favour. But that could well take more time than she has left too.

So do you think she’s received justice?

(If you’re interested, you can find the court’s decision in the Purdy case at