Today the High Court delivered judgements on two cases challenging Britain’s laws against assisted suicide and murder. The Court recognised that the cases "raise profoundly difficult ethical, social and legal issues, but it judged that any change to the law must be a matter for Parliament to decide". CARE welcomed this decision to retain the safeguards enshrined in law which protect those who are vulnerable in British society.
Tony Nicklinson, a 58-year-old sufferer of ‘locked-in syndrome’, petitioned the court in June to enable a doctor to give him a fatal dose of painkillers with the explicit purpose of ending his life without fear of prosecution for murder. Tony argued for this on the grounds that his physical condition meant he could not kill himself, even with assistance, and the current legal position was interfering with his right to a private life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The second case is that of a man known only as ‘AM’ or Martin, who also has ‘locked-in syndrome’. He did not request a change in the law but asked that the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) amend his current guidance so that professionals would not face criminal and/or disciplinary action if they helped him end his life. He sought to get permission from the court for professionals to allow him to die either by refusing his food and drink or to help him get to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland in order for him to end his life there. His wife has been reported as saying that while she respects his desire to end his life she simply cannot do anything to hasten his death herself.
In England and Wales assisting suicide is a crime under the Suicide Act 1961 punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment; however, in 2010 the DPP issued legal guidance to clarify the law on the prosecution of an individual involved in assisting a person’s suicide. The guidance suggests that if relatives or close friends have acted with ‘compassion’ in a case where the individual who commits suicide is of a clear mind then this will increase the likelihood that no prosecutions will be brought against them. However, the policy makes clear that assisting suicide remains a criminal act, prosecutions can still occur and that each case must be considered on its merits.
The court ruled to reject the notion that voluntary euthanasia should be a defence in murder cases, stating that "it would be wrong for this court to hold that article 8 (of the European Convention) requires voluntary euthanasia to afford a possible defence to murder".
In Martin’s case the court ruled that: "To do as Martin wants, the court would be compelling the DPP to go beyond his established legal role. These are not things which the court should do. It is not for the court to decide whether the law about assisted dying should be changed and, if so, what safeguards should be put in place. Under our system of government these are matters for Parliament to decide, representing society as a whole, after Parliamentary scrutiny, and not for the court on the facts of an individual case."
Parliament has however debated the issue of assisted suicide several times in the last six years and any suggestion of changing the law to legalise it, or even weaken it, has been defeated every time. In spite of this, the pro-assisted suicide lobby group Dignity in Dying is advancing a draft Bill which Lord Falconer is expected to try to bring before Parliament next year. The Bill would make assisted suicide legal under certain conditions, such as the patient being a terminally ill adult with less than a year to live and the capacity to make the decision to end their own life. Importantly, neither Tony Nicklinson nor Martin is terminally ill. The persistence of the pro-assisted suicide lobby demonstrates the determination of a small minority of organisations and individuals to change the law regardless of the concerns of the public and Parliamentarians.
Looking abroad for experiences of the legalisation of assisted suicide we can clearly see from the Netherlands and the US state of Oregon the harm it would pose to society through the inevitable incremental extension, abuse and corruption of the original so-called ‘safeguards’, expanding from the terminally ill to those with non-life-threatening disabilities, to those with depression and mental health issues and even to terminally ill children.
What Should We Make Of This?
Dr Daniel Boucher, CARE’s Director of Parliamentary Affairs, had this to say: "Hard cases like those of Tony Nicklinson and Martin make bad law. If we define laws on the basis of our regard for the suffering in a small minority rather than on the basis of our commitment to prevent suffering for the majority, we will expose the majority to all kinds of dangers from which the law currently protects them. Real concerns over the future risk of the normalisation of involuntary euthanasia and growing pressure which could be exerted on the elderly and vulnerable on the grounds of their usefulness to society should continue to make us think twice before rushing headlong the route of legalisation. Although we sympathise with the two men and their families in the case verdicts given today, we welcome the decision of the courts to uphold British law on assisted suicide and murder."
Reading the impassioned tweets of Christians on the social networking site desperate for Tony to change course, or even heart, reveals the level of sympathy for his predicament and the natural response of Christians who long for him to experience the love of Jesus Christ. Able to communicate on Twitter (@TonyNicklinson) using special eye movement technology (watch a video of him sending his first tweet here
Tony replies to these believers with statements expressing his disbelief in God: "Sounds like the god squad I know and love - well-meaning but useless"; "I do not believe in god. I regard it as an intellectual weakness to dump the things you can't explain on a god"; "Just so you all know I AM AN ATHEIST so it really doesn't matter if Jesus died for me or whatever"; "Hasn't anyone told you - I'm an atheist. For me, god is a figment of your imagination."
Although these judgements are understandably difficult for Tony and Martin to receive, the Court has made the right choice by choosing to protect the vulnerable majority despite these tragic individual cases.