Who wants the right to die?

Euthanasia and assisted suicide are deep moral problems that should be debated by elected politicians, not appointed judges.

Kevin Yuill

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Last week, the Court of Appeal in London rejected an appeal by two plaintiffs on the question of whether severely disabled and dying people could be given assistance to end their lives.

The appeal, brought by the widow of the late Tony Nicklinson, a victim of locked-in syndrome, and by Paul Lamb, a 57-year-old former builder who has been paralysed for the past 23 years, was based on two arguments. First, Lamb and Nicklinson argued on the basis of necessity; in other words, to protect medical practitioners from murder charges, it could be argued that ending the life of a severely disabled or dying person was necessary to prevent intolerable suffering. Second, Nicklinson and Lamb argued that the current murder laws are incompatible with the Human Rights Act.

It came as no surprise that Lamb and Nicklinson’s appeal should be rejected. Judges have repeatedly ruled that it is for parliament to change the law over assisted suicide, not the courts.

However, a third man, known only as Martin, asked for clarification as to whether medical staff accompanying him to Switzerland to a suicide organisation would be subject to prosecution. The court gave Martin permission to take his case to the Supreme Court.

How do these cases change the existing situation? The judgment that parliament alone can decide on issues related to the right to die is entirely positive. As the Lord Chief Justice noted, parliament is the ‘conscience of the nation’, acknowledging the far-reaching moral consequences of any decision allowing assisted suicide. It is correct that Parliament should be the institution to consider such a change.

At another level, campaigners might feel that they are chipping away at a law that will inevitably shift at some stage. In recent years, assisted suicide has been legalised in a small number of US states, and euthanasia has been legalised in Luxembourg and Belgium, too. While the law is hardly changing at breakneck speed in the UK, the supporters of assisted suicide and euthanasia may view such changes in other jurisdictions as cause for optimism.

The cases of Nicklinson, Lamb and Martin also raise the inherent difficulty with a change in the law. How to do it? Do we allow individuals to decide for themselves whether or not they are ‘suffering unbearably’ or do we set specific criteria under which we deem suffering a reason to assist in an individual’s death? If so, what criteria? No one has yet answered such questions; nor are they likely to be able to answer them categorically.

On one hand, Dignity in Dying, the highest-profile organisation campaigning for a change in the law, does not support the particular change requested by Nicklinson and Lamb. It feels that only terminally ill patients with six (or perhaps 12) months left to live should be allowed to have help to die. Severe disability alone would not qualify.

On the other, Andrew Copson, chair of the British Humanist Association – forgetting that this issue is not one of religious versus secular values – lent Lamb and Nicklinson his vocal support. Presumably, Copson believes either that all people should be able to have help to commit suicide based on their own assessment of whether their lives are worth living, or he believes that the lives of disabled persons are worth less than the lives of others. It would be very interesting to find out which, assuming that Copson has thought through the issue at all.

These are deep moral questions. The Court of Appeal is absolutely right to point to parliament rather than the courts as the conscience of the nation. However, this will not be the last we hear about this question. Let’s hope it can now be debated in the open by representatives of the British electorate rather than ruled on by appointed judges.

Kevin Yuill is author of Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case Against Legalisation, published by Palgrave Macmillan. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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