Supreme Court’s assisted suicide ruling ‘is just prelude to big debate’


newslatestThe Supreme Court has ruled against three legal challenges that would have relaxed the laws on assisted suicide, but the complicated series of judgments has done little to reassure disabled activists fighting the threat of new legislation.

The three appeals were heard by nine Supreme Court justices, a sign of the complexity and importance of the legal issues at stake.

Their nine separate judgements came less than a month before peers are due to debate the second reading of the Labour peer Lord Falconer’s private member’s bill, which would allow doctors to help end the lives of those they judge to be terminally-ill.

Disabled campaigners from Not Dead Yet UK (NDY UK), backed by other disability organisations, are to hold a demonstration against the assisted dying bill outside the House of Lords on 18 July, the day of the second reading.

They believe the campaign to legalise assisted suicide “reinforces deep-seated beliefs that the lives of sick and disabled people are not worth as much as other people’s”.

NDY UK said that legalising assisted suicide would be “profoundly dangerous”, posing a “very grave risk to thousands of disabled people who have been made vulnerable by cuts in health and social care services and welfare benefits, making some feel they would be better off dead and no longer a burden on their family and friends”.

NDY UK strongly welcomed the Supreme Court’s ruling, but warned of the risk of “sleepwalking into state sanctioned killing”.

Baroness [Jane] Campbell, founder of NDY UK, said: “We can only hope that parliament will heed the wisdom of the court by rejecting Lord Falconer’s very dangerous assisted dying bill.”

But the judgements appear to have added to pressure on peers and MPs to back the bill, with lawyers for the British Humanist Association – which backs legalisation of assisted suicide – saying the majority of the judges had given “a strong signal to Parliament to review and potentially bring new legislation forward”.

The first of the three appeals concerned Tony Nicklinson, who had wanted the courts to rule that it was lawful for a doctor to help him end his life.

He refused nutrition, fluids and medical treatment after the high court dismissed his case in 2012, and he died of natural causes less than a week later. His wife then took on an appeal on his behalf.

Paul Lamb, who is almost completely paralysed after a car crash, was seeking the same change in the law as Nicklinson.

The third appeal was by a disabled man known as Martin, who is virtually unable to move following a stroke, and would only be able to end his life with the assistance of a third party.

He wants to travel to die at the notorious Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, but his family and friends will not help him to do so, so he wants to enlist the help of a care worker, healthcare professional, or volunteer from a pro-euthanasia group.

Martin had asked the courts to order the director of public prosecutions (DPP) to change the existing assisted suicide guidelines, to make it clear that such people would not be prosecuted if they helped him to die.

The court of appeal had narrowly ruled that the DPP’s guidelines were not clear enough, whereas Nicklinson and Lamb both lost their court of appeal cases.

The Supreme Court this week dismissed the appeals of Nicklinson and Lamb – by a margin of seven to two – and unanimously allowed the DPP’s appeal against Martin’s court of appeal victory.

But five of the nine judges also ruled that the Supreme Court had the powers – potentially – to declare that existing assisted suicide laws were incompatible with human rights legislation, although three of the five said that this did not apply in these particular cases.

The other four judges concluded that parliament was better qualified than the courts to assess this question.

One of them, Lord Sumption, delivered a detailed argument explaining that some people may have reasons for deciding to kill themselves “which reflect either overt pressure upon them by others or their own assumptions about what others may think or expect”.

He warned that legalising assisted suicide would be followed by its “progressive normalisation”, in a world where suicide was regarded as “just another optional end-of-life choice”, while the pressures on sick and disabled people to kill themselves “are likely to become more powerful”.

He said: “I very much doubt whether it is possible in the generality of cases to distinguish between those who have spontaneously formed the desire to kill themselves and those who have done so in response to real or imagined pressure arising from the impact of their disabilities on other people.

“There is a good deal of evidence that this problem exists, that it is significant, and that it is aggravated by negative modern attitudes to old age and sickness-related disability.”

He argued that the question of whether relaxing the current laws would involve “unacceptable risks to vulnerable people” was “a classic example of the kind of issue which should be decided by Parliament” because of the “social and moral dimensions of the issue, its inherent difficulty, and the fact that there is much to be said on both sides”.

The disabled crossbench peer Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson, who has spoken out against Lord Falconer’s bill, said it was not clear which campaigning side had gained most from the Supreme Court’s ruling.

But she said she was looking forward to the chance to debate the bill, and agreed that the Lords was “the right place to debate it”.

She said: “I don’t want to see anyone suffer but it is really naive to say there are loads of safeguards and no-one is going to feel pressure [to opt for an assisted suicide].

“If one person dies when it is not their free choice, that is unforgivable.”

She added: “I am not against assisted suicide per se… [but]I am not sure right now I could ever see enough safeguards.”

Baroness Grey-Thompson said she had received hundreds of letters accusing her of lacking compassion by opposing new assisted suicide laws, and telling her: “I want choice, it is my right to die at a time of my choosing”.

But she has received another couple of hundred letters from people saying: “I am worried about being encouraged to make a choice that is not mine. I am worried that people think I am worthless.”

26 June 2014