Leading article: MPs must update our laws on life and death

Judges seem to recognise that the law as it stands is out of step with public opinion

Share
Related Topics

The US Declaration of Independence defines life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as among the unalienable rights of every human being. And that affirmation has provided a model for legal rights the world over. There are times, though, when this combination, which sounds so obvious and reasonable, comes sadly unstuck; when life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness can seem to be at best incompatible, and at worst negate each other.

This is the distressing plight of Tony Nicklinson, whose anguished plea for help to end his life was rejected by the High Court last week. Mr Nicklinson has been paralysed from the neck down since a stroke seven years ago and he says that his life is no longer worth living. He finds himself in the ultimate catch-22 situation. He is adamant that he wants to die and his family respects his wishes. But his condition makes it impossible for him to commit suicide except by starving himself. The court, in a ruling he is likely to appeal, rejected his plea on the grounds that it would in effect legalise euthanasia, and that changing the law was a matter for Parliament.

As it happens, the judgment is due today in a case that might be seen almost as the mirror image of Mr Nicklinson's. The family of a man known only as L is trying to prevent doctors from declining to resuscitate him, should his condition worsen. L suffered a heart attack five weeks ago, which doctors say has led to severe brain damage. His family does not dispute this, but their lawyers have argued in the Court of Protection that it is too early to be so categorical and that, with time, his condition could improve.

Judgments in previous cases that appear similar suggest that the family may be disappointed. The testimony of medical experts acting for a hospital or health authority has generally, though not always, been accepted as the last word. That L's case is being considered in court at all, however, illustrates how delicately balanced such decisions can be and the passions they raise on both sides.

Nor is it coincidental that such cases seem to be coming before the courts more often. With people becoming better informed about their medical options, the authority of the Church waning and the capacity of medicine to prolong life continually advancing, it is probably to be expected that the ultimate ruling in the most acute cases will end up in court. It was only last year that Debbie Purdy, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, won a partial victory in a long judicial battle to minimise the risk of her husband being prosecuted if he helped her travel to Dignitas in Switzerland.

What is also clear from the rulings handed down, however, is that judges feel uncomfortable being placed in the position of arbiters, where matters of free will and the boundaries of life and death are concerned. And while they see it as their duty to uphold the law and there are good reasons why that law is as it is – those who find themselves terminally ill or disabled may be vulnerable and susceptible to pressure, while their families, for whatever reason, may not always be motivated by benevolence – those same judges also recognise that the law is at times inadequate, or out of step with evolving public opinion.

This is where Parliament comes in – and it should do so as soon as possible. MPs may be as reluctant as judges to amend the law in a way that gives individuals a greater say in how and when to end their life, not least because of the fierce lobbying they will receive from both sides. But if the law is to change – and we agree with Tony Nicklinson that it should – they cannot expect judges to do the job for them. This is a task for Parliament, and one it must not duck.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Technician

£35200 per annum + Pension and holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Engine...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing specialist merchant co...

SThree: TRAINEE RECRUITMENT CONSULTANT - IT - LONDON

£20000 - £30000 per annum + OTE £50k: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 bus...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - LONDON

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000 + Car + Pension: SThree: SThree are a ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Political Editor: Mr. Cameron is beginning to earn small victories in Europe

Andrew Grice
Pakistani volunteers carry a student injured in the shootout at a school under attack by Taliban gunmen, at a local hospital in Peshawar  

The Only Way is Ethics: The paper’s readers and users of our website want different things

Will Gore
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'