Two men seeking the right to an assisted death came before the High Court last month. One of the cases, concerning Noel Conway, a retired lecturer who is terminally ill with motor neurone disease, is high-profile, well-funded and backed by celebrities including Ricky Gervais. The other, concerning a man named Omid (his last name cannot be published due to a court order), has received nothing like the same level of support. He has multiple system atrophy, a neurodegenerative disorder that gradually impairs the body’s autonomic functions such as heart rate, bladder function and digestion. His disease is incurable, but he is not terminally ill.
Both men are seeking permission for a judicial review into the ban on assisted suicide. The ban was upheld by parliament in 2015. A date for a permission hearing for Omid is expected in the next few weeks. Conway’s case failed, and he is appealing the decision.
The two cases have a number of parallels. Both men are determined crusaders against a law they regard as ‘unjust and cruel’. Both seek to die peacefully at home rather than live out their symptoms. Both fear what the future will bring. Conway says that his prospects are ‘terrifying and the suffering unimaginable’. For Omid, his suffering is not a future prospect but here already. ‘He is enduring unbearable pain and suffering and cannot speak clearly any more due to his condition’, his lawyer said.
But the difference in profile between the two campaigns is stark. Conway was the subject of a preachy editorial in The Times, which would have been more appropriate for Omid, considering it focused on the idea that ‘quality of life is a far more pressing concern than its extension’. Dignity in Dying, the slick and well-funded reincarnation of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, splashes images of Conway and recounts his story across its website. The only mention of Omid is to say that the cases are separate. Conway’s campaign has raised over £83,000, while Omid’s has raised less than £2,500, well short of a modest £10,000 target.
This is strange, for you would assume that Omid had the more compelling case. While Conway fears he may become ‘entombed in [his] own body’, for Omid, this is already a reality. ‘I could have several miserable years ahead of me’, he says. Conway’s approximate prognosis is that he has six to 24 months to live. Omid cannot move his arms and legs and says he has no ability to kill himself, despite having tried. Conway relies on breathing apparatus and admitted he would have only weeks to live if it were removed.