The existing law achieves a fair balance between individual autonomy and protection of the community
The Court of Appeal has given its Judgment in the case of Mr Noel Conway. Mr Conway has motor neurone disease and wishes to have legal assistance to end his life prematurely at a time of his own choosing. He has argued that Section 2(1) of the 1961 Suicide Act, which prohibits assistance with suicide, represents a disproportionate interference with the right to respect for his private life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Last year the High Court rejected Mr Conway’s case. The Court of Appeal has now judged that the High Court’s Judgment should be upheld and has dismissed Mr Conway’s appeal.
Mr Conway had proposed a series of safeguards – similar to those advocated by campaigning groups for legalised ‘assisted dying’ – for a regime that might enable him and other seriously ill people to receive assistance with suicide. One of the grounds advanced to support his appeal was that the High Court had “failed to address significant evidence and material relating to the strength of the proposed safeguards”. The Court of Appeal accepts that protection of the vulnerable is “a critical issue” in evaluating the effectiveness of any safeguards, but it has observed that “a decision to permit assisted suicide raises important moral and ethical issues, on which society is divided and many people hold passionate but opposing views”.
This is an important matter. The question of safeguards is important – very important. But it is nonetheless a secondary issue to the primary question of whether the existing law prohibiting assistance with suicide should be changed. Yet we are seeing increasing attempts by the ‘assisted dying’ lobby to side-step this primary question and to focus attention instead on how – rather than whether – the law should be changed. It is this cart-before-the-horse approach to which, we believe, the Court of Appeal is drawing attention in its Judgment.
The Judgment refers to “the moral and ethical issues that arise when the principle of sanctity of life rubs up against the principle of personal autonomy”. The term ‘sanctity of life’ is sometimes misinterpreted as having a religious connotation. What is at issue here is the responsibility of the law to embody fundamental social values. One of those values is society’s perception of suicide – that, while people who attempt to take their own lives should be treated with understanding and compassion, suicide itself is not something to be encouraged or assisted.
It is this social value that lies behind ‘suicide watches’ where individuals are thought to be at risk of self-harm, behind suicide prevention strategies and behind the duty of care that doctors have towards persons who show signs of suicidal intent.
It is, we believe, for such reasons that the Court of Appeal has endorsed the view of the High Court that the existing law achieves a fair balance between the interests of the wider community and the interests of people in the position of Mr Conway.