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Parliament must decide on assisted dying, Court of Appeal rules in Conway ‘right to die’ case

27 June 2018


Noel Conway with his wife, Carol, last month, outside Telford Justice Centre, where he has been watching the appeal process

Noel Conway with his wife, Carol, last month, outside Telford Justice Centre, where he has been watching the appeal process

THE Court of Appeal has dismissed an application from a terminally ill man, Noel Conway, to allow doctors to assist him to die legally.

It ruled that Parliament was a “better forum” than the courts for determining the issue of legalising assisted suicide.

Lawyers representing Mr Conway, a 68-year-old retired lecturer who is dying of motor neurone disease, put forward the case for legalising euthanasia in favour of their client during a month-long appeal at the Royal Courts of Justice (News, 4 May).

Mr Conway has expressed his wish to die before his health deteriorates and he is rendered mentally incapable of making a “voluntary, clear, settled, and informed” decision. His case fell in the High Court in July, but his legal team won the right to appeal (News, 21 July 2017).

The appeal was dismissed in a ruling by three judges — Sir Terence Etherton, Master of the Rolls; Sir Brian Leveson, President of the Queen’s Bench Division; and Lady Justice King — published on Wednesday morning.

A summary of the ruling states: “The Court of Appeal does not accept the starting-point suggested on behalf of Mr Conway that the Court is as well placed as Parliament to determine the necessity and proportionality of the blanket ban on assisted suicide in order to protect the weak and vulnerable.

“The Court holds that whilst the protection of the weak and vulnerable is a critical issue in evaluating the suitability and efficacy of Mr Conway’s proposed scheme (which involves the involvement of the Family Division of the High Court to scrutinise every case of assisted suicide), the decision raises a number of important moral and ethical issues on which society is divided and many people hold passionate, but opposing, views, including the competing values as between the concept of sanctity of life and the right to personal autonomy.”

The decision was welcomed by the Christian charity CARE. Its chief executive, Nola Leach, said: “We welcome this decision today and the fact that the current law on assisted suicide has been so clearly upheld.

“We recognise how painful and deeply sensitive these issues are. But far from being broken, the current blanket ban on assisted suicide protects the most vulnerable and weak in our society. They would be most at risk from exploitation or coercion were the law changed. . .

“It is far better to care for the most vulnerable, rather than creating a culture of pressure where the right to die quickly becomes a duty to die.”

But the group Humanists UK, of which Mr Conway is a member, said that the decision must be appealed against in the Supreme Court. Its chief executive, Andrew Copson, said: “We are disappointed by the outcome of Noel Conway’s appeal, and very much hope there is a further appeal to the Supreme Court.

“It is simply wrong that people in this country who are of sound mind, and are terminally ill or incurably suffering, are denied the choice, dignity, and autonomy to be able to have assistance to end their lives at a time and in a manner of their choosing.”

The Conway case is the first attempt to change the law since the case brought by the late Tony Nicklinson, who died in 2012 from locked-in syndrome (News, 24 August 2012). In 2014, his family lost his case in the Supreme Court, which ruled that the issue must be debated by the Government before any decision was made by the courts.

In 2015, a Private Member’s Bill to introduce assisted dying was rejected by the House of Commons in its early stages. It was opposed by senior figures in the Church of England (News, 11 September 2015). The European Court of Human Rights also ruled against the family (News, 21 July 2015).

Mr Conway, who has been too ill to attend court in person, but watched the proceedings via a video link, said after the ruling: “I am naturally disappointed by today’s judgment, though it was not unexpected. I fully intend to appeal it with the support of my legal team.

“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.”

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