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Appellants claim right to die

20 December 2013


Ready to appeal: Jane Nicklinson and Paul Lamb outside the Supreme Court in London on Monday

Ready to appeal: Jane Nicklinson and Paul Lamb outside the Supreme Court in London on Monday

ISSUES relating to assisted suicide and the right to die were argued before the Supreme Court this week in appeals brought by, or on behalf of, three severely disabled claimants.

The first appeal was by Jane Nicklinson, the widow of Tony Nicklinson, who had "locked-in" syndrome after a stroke. He lost his appeal to the Court of Appeal last July, and died in August, but his widow pursues his appeal.

The second was by Paul Lamb, aged 58, who was involved in a car accident in 1990 which left him severely paralysed. The third claimant, identified only as "Martin," aged 49, also has "locked-in" syndrome following a stroke.

Mr Lamb and "Martin" both want their lives ended, but are unable to do so without assistance. The law prohibits anyone from assisting another person to commit suicide. The claimants challenged the law in that regard, and said that it violated their right under article 8 of the Convention on Human Rights to respect for their private and family life.

The Court of Appeal dismissed the claims, and said that such changes in the law were a matter for Parliament, not for the courts. The CNK Alliance Ltd (Care Not Killing), Dignity and Choice in Dying, and the British Humanist Society participated in the appeal as interveners.

The four-day hearing in the Supreme Court took place before a panel of nine Supreme Court justices, including Lord Neuberger, the President of the Supreme Court. Judgment is not expected for some months.

Lords debate assisted dying. The Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Steven Croft, brought a personal perspective to a debate on assisted dying in the House of Lords last week when he described how, in the past few days, he had been involved in conversations concerning his father, who was "very seriously ill", writes Madeleine Davies.

Commenting that the debate, tabled by Lord Dubs, was "particularly poignant" for him, Dr Croft used his maiden speech in the House to draw attention to the "significant questions" posed by death, an "existential event", and the importance of hospital chaplains. He urged the Government to "en-sure that the part they play is written clearly into the documents which will shape end-of-life care into the future".

The Bishop of Chester, Dr Peter Forster, echoed Dr Croft in voicing his opposition to changing the law on assisted dying, but acknowledged the "strength of the momentum for legalising assisted suicide". He concluded: "If you accept assisted suicide fundamentally on the basis of autonomous choice, how can you simply leave it to a very restricted group who are believed to be terminally ill?

 "Logically, one day or another, sooner or later, it would have to be extended. . . The risks inherent in legalising assisted suicide still outweigh the benefits that might accrue."

Lord Harries, a former Bishop of Oxford, also spoke of the danger of giving pre-eminence to patient choice: "Although patient choice is a good, it is not the only good . . . sometimes there is an overriding good. . . By having the law - which does express moral values - in place, that conveys society's high estimate of every single human life."

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