Terminally Ill Man Loses Court Fight Over Right to Choose when to Die

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Noel Conway, who is unlikely to live beyond the next 12 months, wanted to be given the right to choose when he died. Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA

A man who fears being entombed in his own body as it suffers the effects of motor neurone disease has lost his high court fight to enable doctors to help him to end his own life.

Three judges ruled against Noel Conway, a 67-year-old retired lecturer, who argued that the law on assisted dying should be changed to allow him a “peaceful and dignified” death.

Conway, who was not at the high court in London on Thursday, wanted a declaration that the Suicide Act 1961 is incompatible with article 8 of the European convention on human rights, which relates to respect for private and family life, and article 14, which protects from discrimination.

But Lord Justice Sales, Mrs Justice Whipple and Mr Justice Garnham rejected his case.

After the judgment was handed down, Conway expressed his disappointment and said he intended to appeal. “The experiences of those who are terminally ill need to be heard. This decision denies me a real say over how and when I will die.

“I am told the only option I currently have is to effectively suffocate to death by choosing to remove my ventilator, which I am now dependent on to breathe for up to 22 hours a day. There is no way of knowing how long it would take me to die if I did this, or whether my suffering could be fully relieved. To me, this is not choice – this is cruelty.”

Conway said he faced “unbearable suffering” and the possibility of a “traumatic, drawn-out death” as a result of the judgment.

He said it was no longer viable for him to travel to Switzerland, the site of the Dignitas clinic, and he said he would not put his family or doctors “at risk of prosecution by asking for their help here at home”.

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Conway said: “Knowing I had the option of a safe, peaceful assisted death at a time of my choosing would allow me to face my final months without the fear and anxiety that currently plagues me and my loved ones. It would allow me to live the rest of my life on my own terms, knowing I was in control rather than at the mercy of a cruel illness.”

Conway began his legal “fight for choice at the end of life” after being diagnosed with the condition in November 2014. He is unlikely to live beyond the next 12 months and wanted to be given the right to decide when he died.

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

The decision, he argued, could be taken once he had less than six months to live and while he still had the mental capacity, and he wanted to be able to call upon the help of the medical profession.

The law forbids doctors giving him such help and doing so is punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

His case was supported by Humanists UK and opposed by the secretary of state for justice, with the backing of Care Not Killing and Not Dead Yet UK, who also made submissions.

The British Medical Association has previously expressed its opposition to physician-assisted dying, saying it risked putting “vulnerable people at risk of harm” and would be “contrary to the ethics of clinical practice”.

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Sarah Wootton, chief executive of Dignity in Dying, which supported Conway, said the judgment confirmed the courts had the authority to “declare the current law inconsistent with our human rights”, though it had ruled the opposite in this case.

She said: “How can it be more ethical or safe for Noel to have his ventilation withdrawn under the current law, with no formal safeguards, than for him to request life-ending medication within the multiple safeguards proposed through his case? This is paradoxical.

“It is clear the current law does not work, when every eight days someone from this country travels to Dignitas; every year, 300 dying people end their own lives at home in England and Wales; and thousands more experience unimaginable suffering right to the bitter end.

“Terminally ill people deserve to be listened to. They are, after all, the true experts on how they want to die.”

The chief executive of Humanists UK, Andrew Copson, said: “We are hugely disappointed at the decision of the high court today. It is simply wrong that those who are of sound mind but are terminally ill or incurably suffering are denied the choice and dignity to die at a time of their choosing.”

The campaign director of Care Not Killing, which argued against Conway, said: “The safest law is the one we currently have, which gives a blanket prohibition on all assisted suicide and euthanasia. This deters exploitation and abuse through the penalties that it holds in reserve but, at the same time, gives some discretion to prosecutors and judges to temper justice with mercy in hard cases.”

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Dr Peter Saunders said: “A change in the law is opposed by every major disability rights organisation and doctors’ group, including the BMA, Royal College of GPs and the Association for Palliative Medicine. These groups have looked at this issue on numerous occasions in detail and concluded that there is no safe system of assisted suicide and euthanasia anywhere in the world.”

The judges ruled that section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961, which outlaws euthanasia, was compatible with the right to a private life conferred in article 8 of the European convention on human rights.

Conway’s lawyer dropped a claim that it was incompatible with the right to protection from discrimination during the proceedings. A claim to bring judicial review was dismissed and the judges delayed a decision on whether to grant permission to appeal against their ruling.

Source: The Guardian

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