Activists fighting ‘assisted suicide’ laws now need ‘hard facts’ for battle ahead

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Disabled activists will need to seek out more “hard facts” if they want to fight off the continuing threat of efforts to persuade the courts to legalise assisted suicide, according to a crossbench peer.

Baroness [Jane] Campbell spoke out after the campaign group of disabled people she founded, Not Dead Yet UK (NDY UK), intervened in a court case last week for the first time to try to defeat the latest attempt to persuade judges to weaken the law.

NDY UK’s barrister, Catherine Casserley – who was acting pro bono – was allowed to respond to the arguments of Conway’s legal team in court, and to submit a witness statement from Baroness Campbell herself, despite previous concerns that this would not be allowed by the court.

The judicial review has been taken by Noel Conway, who is terminally-ill with motor neurone disease and wants the court to find that the Suicide Act – which makes it illegal to assist someone to take their own life – is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Conway’s case is backed by the pro-assisted suicide campaigning organisation* Dignity in Dying (DiD).

He argues that the current law prevents him exercising his right to choice and control over his death, and that the right to an assisted suicide would give him “great reassurance and comfort” and allow him “to decide when I am ready to go, rather than be forced into a premature death by travelling abroad or be left at the mercy of a cruel illness”.

Baroness Campbell (pictured) was in court for three of the four days of last week’s judicial review.

She said it was almost certain that whichever side loses will appeal, when the three high court judges deliver their ruling later this year.

She told Disability News Service that her experience of witnessing the judicial review had convinced her that NDY UK “cannot rest on this issue” and needs to find fresh evidence to back up its arguments, both for any appeal and future cases supported by DiD (formerly known as the Voluntary Euthanasia Society).

She said: “The court is interested only in facts and they must be evidenced. For every argument advanced, the judges respond, ‘Prove it!’ If you can’t, they’re not interested.”

Baroness Campbell said this meant that NDY UK would have to “search out more hard facts to support our arguments”, or even commission fresh research to look at what has happened in those countries and US states that have legalised assisted suicide.

But it will also be seeking evidence of cases in the UK in which someone has attempted to take their own life because of “coercion” by a loved one or relative, or because they felt they were a “burden”.

This is likely to mean that NDY UK will be seeking more pro bono help, this time from researchers.

Baroness Campbell said NDY UK had been “on a very steep learning curve” with its first intervention in a court case, and had not had “the time or resources to research copious piles of evidence”, unlike DiD, which had been preparing for its next court battle since the defeat of a private member’s bill put forward by Labour MP Rob Marris two years ago.

And she warned that yet another judicial review is due to be heard in court soon, which will argue that the rights of Omid, a disabled man from north London who has multiple system atrophy but is not terminally-ill, are being breached by UK law, which prevents him from being helped to take his own life. That case is not supported by DiD*.

Baroness Campbell said that Omid’s lawyers are likely to use evidence from Canada, where its supreme court ruled in favour of assisted suicide in 2015, in a case which had similarities to the one being taken by Omid and led to new assisted suicide laws the following year.

Pro-assisted suicide groups in Canada are already campaigning to widen the scope of that legislation.

Baroness Campbell said: “This court case reminded me why we cannot rest on this issue.

“We are constantly under siege from the DiD supporters, who will not accept that disabled and terminally people are a fact of life and should be supported to live as equal human beings.

“That way, maybe they wouldn’t fear the unknown so much that they want to blot it (us) out.

“This entire issue never fails to make me feel miserable and uneasy and this was bought into sharp focus during the four-day court hearing.

“We really don’t have a choice other than to fight back.”

*An earlier version of this story mistakenly stated that Dignity in Dying was a charity. It is actually a non-profit campaigning organisation. The story also mistakenly stated that DiD was supporting the Omid case, which it is not. DiD says it proposes a change in the law “to allow only terminally ill, mentally competent adults the option of an assisted death, subject to strict safeguards”. Apologies for these two errors.