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Man with motor neurone disease challenges ban on assisted suicide

BMJ 2017; 356 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.j139 (Published 09 January 2017) Cite this as: BMJ 2017;356:j139
  1. Clare Dyer
  1. The BMJ

A man with motor neurone disease is mounting a legal challenge to the ban on assisted suicide in England and Wales, in a move that could lead to a change in the law.

Noel Conway, 67, who is not expected to live beyond the next 12 months, argues that the law condemns him to “unimaginable suffering” as his condition deteriorates. “If I let nature take its course, I could effectively become entombed in my own body, or I could die from suffocation or choking,” he said.

Conway, a retired lecturer, is applying for a judicial review in the High Court. He claims that the ban violates his right to a private life under article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

If his case reaches the UK Supreme Court the justices could decide to make a declaration that the current law, contained in the Suicide Act 1961, is incompatible with the convention. Such a ruling would not change the law immediately but would put the onus on parliament to legislate.

In 2014 a nine judge bench of the Supreme Court rejected a similar challenge in the case of Tony Nicklinson and Paul Lamb.1 A majority of five ruled that the court had the power to make a declaration of incompatibility and two of the five would have made the declaration then and there. But the other three, though they considered that the case for maintaining the status quo was “weak,” thought that parliament should have the chance to debate the issue first and to work out safeguards for vulnerable people who might feel under pressure to end their lives.

Lady Hale, the court’s deputy president, suggested a procedure under which the few people who wanted a doctor’s help to die could apply to a High Court judge. The court could ensure that they had made a settled decision of their own free will.

Conway’s case, backed by the right to die campaigning organisation Dignity in Dying, differs from the cases of Nicklinson and Lamb, who were almost completely paralysed but not terminally ill. Conway’s lawyers are also suggesting strict criteria and safeguards to protect vulnerable people from pressure, including a prognosis of no more than six months to live and a requirement for a High Court judge to confirm that the criteria have been met.

A private member’s bill to allow assisted dying was backed by the House of Lords in 2014, after the Supreme Court’s judgment, but was defeated in the House of Commons the next year.23

In February 2015 the Canadian Supreme Court struck down the country’s ban on assisted dying, ruling that it violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.45 In June 2016 the federal government brought in Canada-wide legislation providing for physician assisted dying.

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