A court’s rejection of the latest bid to legalise assisted suicide shows that a group of disabled activists, and the medical profession, are now leading the opposition to a change in the law, according to a disabled peer.
Noel Conway, who is terminally-ill with motor neurone disease, wanted the high court to find that the Suicide Act – which makes it illegal to assist someone to take their own life – was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
But three high court judges found against Conway, although he is now seeking permission to take his case to the court of appeal.
The disabled people’s campaign group, Not Dead Yet UK (NDY UK), had intervened in the court case – the first time it had taken such a step – with its evidence including a witness statement submitted by the disabled crossbench peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell (pictured).
In her statement, she had told the court that a ruling in favour of Conway would “damage beyond repair the way in which society views the elderly, sick and disabled to the point where the Equality Act itself and the protection which it provides becomes fundamentally defective”.
Her statement added: “I (and the hundreds of disabled and terminally ill members of NDY UK), want people to understand that it is perfectly possible to have a fulfilling and enjoyable life whilst living with a substantial, progressive condition.”
She had told the court that continuing cuts to health and care services would mean that disabled and terminally-ill people “may become more inclined towards considering desperate options such as assisted suicide” if it was legalised.
NDY UK’s barrister, Catherine Casserley, who was acting pro bono, said after the ruling that it was “significant” that Baroness Campbell’s statement, and the contribution by NDY UK, were recognised in the high court’s judgment.
Casserley told NDY UK: “This is significant because the other interveners are not mentioned, and it puts you on the map as having made a valuable contribution on the subject which will be useful for future cases.”
NDY UK points out that there is no organisation run by or for disabled and terminally-ill people that supports the legalisation of assisted suicide, while the medical profession, including the British Medical Association, the Royal College of General Practitioners and the Association for Palliative Medicine, also opposes a change in the law.
Among those supporting Conway are the organisations Dignity in Dying (DiD), formerly known as the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, and Humanists UK.
Baroness Campbell told Disability News Service yesterday (Wednesday): “I think this entire outcome confirms that NDY UK, along with the majority of the medical profession, are now the foremost opposition to DiD.
“We are more resilient than ever and this legal judgement proves we are improving our resistance capabilities all the time.
“This is not funded by money; we haven’t any. We are fuelled by our supporters’ generosity of spirit, passion and commitment to resist this assisted suicide campaign, which threatens our lives and our right to equal treatment as non-disabled people under the law.”
NDY UK believes that Conway and his supporters are attempting to “override” the decision of the House of Commons, which voted against legalisation of assisted suicide two years ago.
Juliet Marlow, a spokeswoman for NDY UK, said: “We welcome the decision by the high court to reject this attempt to treat terminally-ill and disabled people differently by removing vital legal protections.
“We are looking forward to the national conversation now focussing on the real issue here, which is a lack of adequate social care being provided to people with disabilities.
“Similarly, we need a proper discussion on ensuring adequate palliative care is provided for the terminally-ill.”
Conway said he was “deeply disappointed” by the high court’s decision.
He said: “This decision denies me a real say over how and when I will die.
“I am told the only option I currently have is to effectively suffocate to death by choosing to remove my ventilator, which I am now dependent on to breathe for up to 22 hours a day.
“There is no way of knowing how long it would take me to die if I did this, or whether my suffering could be fully relieved. To me, this is not choice – this is cruelty.”
The retired college lecturer added: “Knowing I had the option of a safe, peaceful assisted death at a time of my choosing would allow me to face my final months without the fear and anxiety that currently plagues me and my loved ones.
“It would allow me to live the rest of my life on my own terms, knowing I was in control rather than at the mercy of a cruel illness.”
But Phil Friend, a co-founder of NDY UK, said: “A change in the law is a terrifying prospect to the vast majority of disabled and terminally-ill people who work hard towards achieving equality for all.
“Until we have reached that objective, assisted suicide will remain a dangerous and prejudiced option, likely to increase suffering and distress.”
And actor and fellow NDY UK supporter Liz Carr added: “Disabled and terminally-ill people want support to live – not to die.
“As a long-standing supporter of Not Dead Yet UK, I am keen to take an active role in making that happen.”