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UK court upholds ban on assisted suicide

By Susan Gately - 29 June, 2018

"When the physical, psychological and spiritual needs of patients are met, there is no pressure for change.” – Dr Peter Saunders

Judges at the UK’s Court of Appeal have rejected an attempt to legalise assisted suicide.

The case involved a 68-year-old motor neuron patient, Noel Conway, who wanted to be helped to die. Mr Conway argued that the current blanket ban on assisted suicide under the Suicide Act is incompatible with his human rights.

The case was heard between 30th April and 4th May, and judgement was given on 27th June. The Court of Appeal upheld the earlier decision of the Divisional Court which ruled that it was legitimate in this area for the “legislature to seek to lay down clear and defensible standards in order to provide guidance for society, to avoid distressing and difficult disputes at the end of life and to avoid creating a slippery slope leading to incremental expansion over time of the categories of people to whom similar assistance for suicide might have to [be] provided… we find that section 2 (right to life) is compatible with the Article 8 rights (private and family life) of Mr Conway. We dismiss his application for a declaration of incompatibility.”

Commenting on the decision, Dr Peter Saunders, campaign director of Care Not Killing described it as a “sensible” decision which “recognises that the safest law is the one we already have – a complete ban on assisted suicide and euthanasia. Our laws deter the exploitation, abuse and coercion of vulnerable people, who as we have seen in the US states of Oregon and Washington, often cite feeling they have become a financial or care burden as the reason for ending their lives.”

Dr Saunders said he hoped those campaigning to remove these important and universal protections from the disabled and infirm accept this ruling. “It is now time for them to move on and turn their attention instead to how we can secure equality of access to the very best health care for all. This must include palliative care and mental health support, because we know when the physical, psychological and spiritual needs of patients are met, there is no pressure for change.”

However, Mr Conway said he will appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. The former lecturer, who is dependent on a ventilator for up to 23 hours a day, with only movement in his right hand, head and neck, has been given less than six months to live.

Meanwhile, in Spain a bill has passed through its first stages which gives citizens the right to die. The bill decriminalises euthanasia and stipulates that a person with a serious and terminal illness, or a chronic, severe disability, can choose to die. (Currently assisted suicide carries a five-year jail sentence, and any person directly involved in causing another’s death can be tried for homicide and jailed for up to ten years).

The law, which coming from the Socialist administration, with the support of the centrist party, Podemos, is opposed by the Popular Party. A Popular Party member, Pilar Cortés, said legalising the right to die would be a sad day for Spain. “To talk about euthanasia is to talk about failure, to admit a political, professional and medical defeat.”

The proposal will be debated before it returns for a final vote, with legislation in force in 2019.

Currently assisted suicide is legal in Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland.

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