Disabled activists have welcomed the court of appeal’s decision to reject the latest attempt to legalise assisted suicide.
They spoke out after three senior judges yesterday (Wednesday) rejected the judicial review brought by Noel Conway, who is terminally-ill with motor neurone disease.
Conway had wanted the 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.
The high court had already dismissed the judicial review. Conway said he would now appeal to the Supreme Court.
The disabled people’s campaign group Not Dead Yet UK (NDY UK) had intervened in the court case, the first time it has taken such a step.
Phil Friend, from NDY UK, welcomed the court’s judgment, and said the group was “particularly pleased” that the court had recognised some of the concerns it had raised on the dangers of assisted suicide.
He said: “These include issues such as safeguards for people who might be at risk of coercion, the difficulties in predicting death within six months, and whether any scheme might be extended (as has happened in Belgium).”
Friend said that legalising assisted suicide “opens the door to risks and dangers driven by attitudes about disabled people and their lives”, and he said that no disability charity or organisation was campaigning for a change in the law.
He said: “We’ve seen two recent NHS reports which catalogue the systemic failures to provide appropriate care for disabled people, resulting in their premature and unnecessary deaths.
“Until disabled people are seen, and treated, as equals in our society, the law must protect them.
“We want support to live, not to die.”
Nikki Kenward, director of Distant Voices, another user-led campaign group which opposes euthanasia and assisted suicide, said the court’s decision was “a great relief”.
She also drew attention to recent NHS scandals and highlighted the events at Gosport War Memorial Hospital, in which an inquiry found the lives of between 450 and 650 people had been “shortened” because of an “institutionalised regime” of administering dangerous levels of opioids to patients between 1989 and 2000.
She said she feared that legalising assisted suicide would lead to even less scrutiny of healthcare professionals.
Kenward said: “When whistleblowers, concerned distraught relatives, nurses, police investigations, complaints committees and the like are unable to raise the alarm to the authorities within the constraints of the current law it is especially concerning to imagine the dangers that lie therein should a change in the law have been granted.”
Another disabled activist, David Gillon, said the media coverage of the Conway case highlighted the dangers of legalisation.
He said: “When you look at the coverage of the assisted suicide campaign, newspapers and TV news consistently talk about disability as a negative, a reasonable cause to seek death, and then utterly fail to point out that no disability group is campaigning for assisted suicide, or that Not Dead Yet UK, comprised solely of disabled people, is leading the campaign against it.
“That neatly illustrates that society does not have a healthy enough view of disability to put our lives in its hands.
“Reporting of the assisted suicide campaign seems to be operating on a consensus that disability is bad, a perfectly good reason to kill yourself and that any dissenting voice is too confusing to mention.
“That’s why any change in the law on assisted suicide is not safe for disabled people, as the experience in Belgium and the Netherlands demonstrates.”
Conway, who is supported by the campaign group Dignity in Dying, said he was “naturally disappointed” by the judgment, although it was “not unexpected”.
He said: “I am told that I can choose between letting nature take its course until I am completely unable to move or communicate; hastening my death by removing my ventilator with no guarantee my suffering can be completely relieved; attempting to end my own life at home in potentially painful and traumatic circumstances; or making the arduous and expensive journey to Dignitas and risking prosecution for any loved ones who accompany me.
“It is barbaric to force me to decide between these unacceptable options.
“I will keep fighting for myself and all terminally ill people who want the right to die peacefully, with dignity and on our own terms.”
NDY UK’s barrister, Catherine Casserley – from Cloisters chambers which, together with Fry Law, had worked pro bono – had told the court of appeal of the risk that disabled people could be subject to coercion if assisted suicide was legalised.
The three senior court of appeal justices highlighted this concern and also pointed in their judgment to a report by the Royal College of General Practitioners which expressed fears that a “right to die” could very easily become a “duty to die”, particularly “when financial considerations were a factor and the individual felt like a burden to their family”.
They concluded that there could be “no doubt that Parliament is a far better body for determining the difficult policy issue in relation to assisted suicide” than the courts because of the “conflicting, and highly contested, views within our society on the ethical and moral issues and the risks and potential consequences of a change in the law”.
Parliament has repeatedly rejected attempts to change the law on assisted suicide, including the latest effort by Labour MP Rob Marris, in 2015.
The three court of appeal justices agreed with the high court’s conclusion that the current law “achieves a fair balance between the interests of the wider community” and those in Conway’s position, although they expressed “profound respect for the dignified and resolute way” he had coped with his condition.