After Parliament’s rejection of legalisation, it would be ‘institutionally inappropriate’ for the courts to re-open the matter
The decision of the High Court last week to reject an appeal by Mr Noel Conway against the law’s prohibition of assisted suicide comes as no surprise. In 2014 the Supreme Court, in rejecting a similar appeal, expressed the view that the question “involves a consideration of issues which Parliament is inherently better qualified than the courts to assess” and that “the courts should respect Parliament’s assessment”. In 2015 Parliament gave its verdict and rejected, by a substantial majority, a Private Member’s Bill which sought to legalise assistance with suicide for terminally ill people.
It is fair to ask therefore: if the courts have referred the matter to Parliament and if Parliament has ruled against legalising assisted suicide, what purpose is to be served – apart from generating publicity for the ‘assisted dying’ cause – by launching yet another appeal in the courts? Rather than refusing to accept the will of Parliament and taking the matter back to the courts, the campaigners for legalisation would be better employed reflecting on why their case is failing to gain traction with legislators.
In any case, such appeals on behalf of people who are terminally ill raise an important question. If the touchstone for legalisation is (as is frequently claimed) compassion for those who are seriously ill, where is the rationale for hastening the deaths of people who are expected to die shortly of natural causes but refusing to do so for others with chronic incurable conditions with which they may have to live for much longer? In reality, the ‘assisted dying’ proposals we have seen contain within themselves the seeds of their own expansion, as is illustrated only too well by current proposals to extend Oregon’s assisted suicide law.
The existing law rests on a clear and rationale principle – that we do not involve ourselves in deliberately bringing about the deaths of other people. Once that principle is breached by introducing exceptions based on arbitrary criteria such as terminal illness or six months to live, the boundary of the law becomes just a line in the sand, easily crossed and hard to defend against encroachment.