Disability rights? Assisted suicide question in court again


People on both sides of the assisted suicide/right to die with dignity debate are in court again this week. And both claim to be working for the good of people with disabilities including multiple sclerosis.

On one side are Noel Conway, supported by Dignity in Dying activists, is seeking a ruling from the High Court that would give terminally ill people in the UK the right to die.

Opposi.ng them are the government’s Ministry of Justice and Not Dead Yet UK (NDYUK) campaigners. The case is expected to last four days,

Mr Conway, 67, has motor neurone disease. He wants a doctor to be allowed to prescribe a lethal dose when his health deteriorates further.

He said he wanted to say goodbye to loved ones “at the right time, not to be in a zombie-like condition suffering both physically and psychologically”.

Under British law, any doctor who helps him to die could face up to 14 years in prison.

Mr Conway was too weak to attend court, his barrister, Richard Gordon QC, said his client faces a stark choice. This is either to seek to bring about his own death now while still physically able to do so, or await death with no control over how and when it comes.

Mr Gordon said the change to the law that Mr Conway wanted would apply only to adults who are terminally ill with less than six months to live and who have a settled wish to die.

Mr Conway, of Shrewsbury, 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.”

He is a retired college lecturer, and used to be fit and active but motor neurone disease is gradually destroying all strength in his muscles. He cannot walk and increasingly relies on a ventilator to help him breathe. As his disease progresses, he fears becoming entombed in his body.

Safeguards ‘never enough’

NDYUK’s position is set out on its website. It says: “Not Dead Yet UK maintains any imposed safeguards will never be watertight enough to successfully protect all ill and disabled people from a change to the Suicide Act. The Act currently provides much needed protection to disabled and terminally ill people by prohibiting anyone from assisting another person to kill themselves. Even if only one person dies against their wishes as a result of a change to the law that is one death too many and completely unacceptable.

“We argue that disabled and terminally ill people are just as entitled to this protection as everyone else; to single out one group of society as different to the rest is a dangerous move and will be open to misinterpretation. Legalising Assisted Suicide for disabled and terminally ill people would again set us aside from the rest of society. We would effectively be second class citizens again, with suicide seen as a valid choice for us while non-disabled people would be encouraged to live.”

Baroness (Jane) Campbell of Surbiton is a disability rights campaigner and a co-founder of NDYUK. She says changing the law would send all the wrong signals.

“We have successfully seen off attempts to change the law on Assisted Suicide in Parliament. Now we must change tactics to ensure the courts continue to uphold our equal right to life. The law must not be weakened via the back door,” she said.

The last major challenge to the law was turned down by the Supreme Court three years ago. At that time, it ruled that courts can interpret the law but that it is for parliament to change them.

Assisted suicide should be a choice

I set out my own views on this issue in this blog on December 17 last year. I said:

Where do I stand? You may well ask!

Well, my religion’s tenet is ‘if it harms none, do as you will’ and so my beliefs don’t tend to fit in with mainstream faiths. That being the case, I cannot accept the religious argument. Choosing to end your own life with your family’s understanding, is not hurting anyone else.

Switzerland has amply demonstrated that the ‘slippery slope’ is not inevitable. They have ample checks, medical and otherwise.

Asking medical professionals to get involved would not be as awkward as may be imagined. There are plenty now that would like to help people with unendurable and never-ending pain to close their lives with dignity. Anyway, it would only be voluntary not compulsory.

Now, far be it from me to cast doubts on the ‘alternative’ argument but the so-called ‘end of life’ treatments are purely palliative in nature. They relieve some symptoms to reduce pain etc but do little, if anything, for quality of life.

Now, at present, at just a year younger than Andrew, nothing could be further from my mind. Despite having lived with MS for 16½ years, live is good, and is for living. I can’t imagine ever making the same decision that Andrew Barclay made but I think we should all have the legal right to make it.

And that includes Noel Conway.

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Affiliate disclaimer: This affiliate disclosure details the affiliate relationships of MS, Health & Disability at 50shadesofsun.com with other companies and products. Read more.

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50shadesofsun.com is the personal website of Ian Franks, a Features Writer with Medical News Today. He enjoyed a successful career as a journalist, from reporter to editor in the print media. He gained a Journalist of the Year award in his native UK. Ian received a diagnosis of MS in 2002 and now lives in the south of Spain. He uses a wheelchair and advocates on mobility and accessibility issues.

Euthanasia for terminally ill – where do you stand?

Euthanasia is a difficult and contentious subject to deal with as there are strong opinions on both sides of the argument but it is a crucial issue for many with one of a number of chronic illnesses.

There are those who campaign for the right to die with dignity while others talk about the value of life.

Debbie Purdy (Pic: Zambio).

Debbie Purdy (Pic: Zambio).

Debbie Purdy, who had primary progressive multiple sclerosis, became well-known in the UK for her right to die campaign. She even won a court ruling to clarify the law on assisted suicide. She died in December 2014, aged 51.

Former comedy actor Brian Rix became president of Mencap learning disability charity and opposed euthanasia for many years. As Lord Rix, in the UK parliament’s upper house, the House of Lords, he voted against changing the law. However, he later changed his mind when he became terminally ill.

Shortly before he died last month, 92-year-old Rix said the law on assisted dying needed changing and wrote to urge the Lord Speaker1, who presides over the House of Lords, to push through legislation allowing those in his situation to be assisted to die.

He said his illness has left him “like a beached whale” and in constant discomfort.

In his letter, Rix wrote: “My position has changed. As a dying man, who has been dying now for several weeks, I am only too conscious that the laws of this country make it impossible for people like me to be helped on their way, even though the family is supportive of this position and everything that needs to be done has been dealt with.

Lord Rix (Pic: Mirror),

Lord Rix (Pic: Mirror).

“Unhappily, my body seems to be constructed in such a way that it keeps me alive in great discomfort when all I want is to be allowed to slip into a sleep, peacefully, legally and without any threat to the medical or nursing profession.

“I am sure there are many others like me who having finished with life wish their life to finish.

“Only with a legal euthanasia Bill on the statute books will the many people who find themselves in the same situation as me be able to slip away peacefully in their sleep instead of dreading the night.”

I find that letter touching but it is only one side of the argument. There is a worldwide network of groups campaigning against euthanasia and, for the moment, they seem to have the upper hand in most countries.

What may concern many, though, is that news has just broken that a terminally ill minor has been helped to die in Belgium for the first time since the country did away with age restrictions on euthanasia two years ago.

Liberal Senator Jean-Jacques De Gucht who wrote the law, said the minor was from the country’s Flemish region, but refused to provide any other details in order to protect the privacy of the grieving family.

Since the change in its law, Belgium is the only country that allows minors of any age to have assistance in dying. In the Netherlands, the lower age limit for euthanasia is 12 years.

In Belgium there are strict rules for euthanasia to be approved. The minor has to be in the final stages of a terminal illness, to understand the difference between life and death rationally and to have asked to end his or her life on repeated occasions. It also needs parental consent as well as approval of two doctors, one of which must be a psychiatrist.

Human euthanasia is legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, Colombia, and Luxembourg. Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, Germany, Japan, Canada, and in the US states of Washington, Oregon, Vermont, Montana, and California.

Do so many places represent a breakthrough or the thin end of the wedge? Is it good or bad? For me this is a question of health and personal conscience. It should not be a subject for moral or religious debate.

Each individual decision should be a private matter, not one for public debate or protests.

¹ Baroness D’Souza, who received Lord Rix’s letter, was succeeded as Lord Speaker by Lord Fowler on September 1.


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