PRO-LIFE and disability-rights campaigners gathered in protest outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London, on Monday, at the start of a week-long High Court battle over the legalisation of euthanasia.
A lawyer, Richard Gordon QC, is attempting to legalise assisted dying in favour of his client, Noel Conway, a 67-year-old retired lecturer who is dying of motor neurone disease. Mr Gordon told the High Court that the 1961 Suicide Act breached human rights, because it did not protect dignity and personal autonomy.
Mr Conway had felt “entombed” by his condition, which had left him severely disabled and heavily reliant on a ventilation machine, his lawyer said.
But supporters of the current legislation — by which any doctor who assists a patient to die could face up to 14 years in prison for manslaughter — fear that legalising euthanasia could lead to the exploitation or coercion of the weak and vulnerable, particularly the elderly.
Mr Gordon argued, however, that the change Mr Conway was looking for would apply only to terminally ill adults who had been given fewer than six months to live, and who had a strong wish to die.
This is the first attempt to change the law since the case brought by the late Tony Nicklinson, who died five years ago from locked-in syndrome (News, 24 August 2012). His family lost his case in the Supreme Court in 2014, which said that the issue must be debated by the Government before any decision was made by the courts.
The House of Commons later rejected a Private Member’s Bill to introduce assisted dying, in 2015, in its early stages. It was opposed by senior figures in the Church of England (News, 24 July 2015). The European Court of Human Rights also ruled against the family.
Mr Conway, who was too ill to attend the court in person, but was due to give evidence via a video link, on Wednesday, told the BBC: “I will be quadriplegic. I could be virtually catatonic, and conceivably be in a locked-in syndrome — that to me would be a living hell. That prospect is one I cannot accept.”