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British high court rejects challenges to assisted suicide laws

Paul Lamb and Jane Nicklinson, widow of Tony Nicklinson (PA)

Britain’s highest court has thrown out three challenges to laws against assisted suicide.

Two of them involved cases in which severely disabled men said their right to privacy was being violated by the 1961 Suicide Act, which makes assisting a suicide a crime punishable by up to 14 years in jail.

A third man sought clarification about whether anyone who helped him to commit suicide in Switzerland, where assisted suicide is permitted, would face prosecution in Britain.

In a ruling published yesterday, the Supreme Court dismissed all three — the third unanimously — and as a result exhausted a long battle by assisted suicide activists to change the law through the courts.

A four-page summary issued by the court explained that a majority of judges felt it was better for the British Parliament to decide on the legality of assisted suicide.

The first two cases were brought by Paul Lamb, who was left almost totally paralyzed by a car accident, and the family of stroke victim Tony Nicklinson, who died in 2012, and who argued that laws which prevented doctors from helping them to kill themselves were incompatible with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to a private life.

The court unanimously decided that the ban on assisted suicide law lay within the European Court of Human Rights’ “margin of appreciation” and that the UK was, therefore, not violating international law.

Five of the nine concluded that the court had the constitutional power to rule in favor of the complainants, but only two of them wished to do so.

Lord Neuberger, president of the court, said in his ruling, however, that “Parliament now has the opportunity” to decide if the prohibition of assisted suicide “should be relaxed or modified, and if so how, in the knowledge that, if it is not satisfactorily addressed, there is a real prospect that a further, and successful, application for a declaration of incompatibility may be made.”

His comments were widely interpreted as an invitation to politicians to support the Assisted Dying Bill, a private bill to legalise assisted suicide; it is expected to be heard in Parliament in July.

Sarah Wootton, chief executive of Dignity in Dying, a lobby group for assisted suicide, said in a statement posted on the organisation’s website that the court “clearly indicated that it is only a matter of time before the law is reformed.”

“If Parliament is unwilling to address the issue, then ultimately the courts will,” she said.

But Andrea Williams of the Christian Legal Centre said in a statement emailed to Catholic News Service that the “judgment should not be seen as giving permission to Parliament to reopen the issue there.”

“The judgment upholds the law protecting life. Parliament time and again has rejected any attempt to weaken the law on assisted suicide,” she added.

Dr Andrew Fergusson of Care Not Killing, an alliance of about 50 medical, disability and religious groups — including the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales — also welcomed the judgment because it left the law unchanged.

“The current law exists to protect the vulnerable and those without a voice: disabled, terminally ill and elderly people, who might otherwise feel pressured into ending their lives,” said Fergusson. “It does not need changing.”


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