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High Court rejects assisted suicide law change

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The High Court today completely rejected an attempt to change the law on assisted suicide. The case was that of Noel Conway, who is 67 and has motor neurone disease. Mr Conway wanted a doctor to be allowed to prescribe a lethal dose when his health deteriorates further. Mr Conway’s case is substantially the same as that of Tony Nicklinson and Paul Lamb in 2014, except that his condition is terminal.

The senior and highly experienced judges concluded that Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998 (Right to respect for private life) is not an unlimited right, but a qualified right. This right does not extend to compelling the state, and doctors, to provide a lethal cocktail of barbiturates for Mr Conway and other terminally ill people to kill themselves. In a free democratic society, health, morals and the rights and freedoms of others must be protected, and granting Conway his wish would have undermined this.

A change in the law on assisted suicide is opposed by every major disability rights organisation and medical association, including the BMA, Royal College of GPs and the Association for Palliative Medicine. This is because of the increased pressure that would be placed on elderly and disabled people if assisted suicide was legalised. These groups have concluded that there is no safe system of assisted suicide anywhere in the world. The judges also understood that the current law protects vulnerable people from being pressured to end their lives, because of real, or imagined fears of being a burden upon relatives, carers or on a state and health care system that is short of resources.

Dr Peter Saunders, Campaign Director of Care Not Killing, commented:

“Laws in the Netherlands and Belgium that were only meant to apply to mentally competent terminally ill adults, have been extended to include elderly and disabled people, those with mental health problems and even non-mentally competent children. While in Oregon, the model often cited by those wanting to change the law, there are examples of cancer patients being denied lifesaving and life extending drugs, yet offered the lethal cocktail of barbiturates to end their own lives.”

Andrea Williams, Chief Executive of Christian Concern said:

“These cases are always emotive because all of us want to be kind in the face of human suffering. It is vital, however, that we do not lose sight of the key principles at stake, and the implications of any court decision on other people. It certainly wouldn’t be compassionate to allow any weakening of the protection that the current law provides.

“Assisted suicide is wrong in principle. A civilised society does not legislate for the killing of its citizens, especially its most vulnerable. It uses the law to uphold their dignity and to offer the highest protection. As well as the principle, in practice, it isn’t possible to design suitable protections to make sure that sick, elderly, unwell, depressed or lonely people are not put at risk or put under pressure.

“As the courts have made clear in the past, the law on assisted suicide is an issue for Parliament, not the courts. There have been over ten attempts to legalise assisted suicide through British Parliaments since 2003, all of which have failed for good reasons. Just two years ago, the House of Commons looked very carefully at the issue, considered all the arguments, and then voted by an overwhelming majority against the proposed liberalisation of the law.

“Rather than pushing for assisted suicide, which raises huge ethical issues and would be a dangerous move, society should be investing in research into underlying conditions and even better palliative care than we have today. Sadly, however, this may not be the last time that assisted suicide is examined by the courts. There is a determined assisted suicide lobby that is desperate to change the law by whatever means it can find, despite rejection by Parliament and the courts. Assisted suicide campaigners repeatedly bring high profile cases to court to pressure Parliament to change the law.

"Having lost the argument in Parliament two years ago, assisted suicide campaigners have signalled that they will refocus their attention on the courts. This relentless challenge must be resisted and we must continue to be vigilant.

“The current law tempers justice with mercy and provides essential safeguards against abuse. We mustn't allow those safeguards to be undermined."

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