Yesterday’s Appeal Court decision in the latest “right to die” case simply confirms the status quo.
Under the law as it stands, an individual – however debilitated and determined – may not solicit help to end his life. Paul Lamb, who was paralysed in a road accident, and the family of the late Tony Nicklinson, who suffered from locked-in syndrome until his death last year, vowed to press on to the Supreme Court.
There are two aspects here – the human and the judicial – and in this case they appear sharply at odds. From the human perspective, it appears almost as barbaric to force someone to live on against their will, if they have no hope of getting better and their suffering cannot be relieved, as it would be to impose euthanasia in such circumstances. If the individuals are of sound mind – and with Mr Lamb, as with Tony Nicklinson, there can be no doubt on this score – there should be no obstacle to their making the decision to end their lives or, crucially, being granted the means to do so.
For the difficulty in both these cases is that the recourse open to others who are intent on committing suicide – travel to the Dignitas clinic in Zurich, or perhaps a method sought out on the internet – is not open to them, because they lack the requisite physical capacity. Yet any doctor who agreed to assist them could be culpable. This is the conundrum. If you need help to die – and many of those who seek this way out will, by virtue of their conditions, need help – their right to choose is curtailed. They find themselves discriminated against one last time.
This is why, as a newspaper, we expressed such strong support for Tony Nicklinson in his ultimately vain quest. Of course, if the courts eventually recognise a legal right to die, there must be stringent safeguards. No one should feel pressure to end their life because they feel they are a burden to their family. And judges – for any authority would probably need to come from a judge – would have to satisfy themselves that the impetus had not come from avaricious relatives.
The question remains, though, whether the courts are the right place to further this cause. Both the lower court and now the Appeal Court have ruled that they had to uphold the law as it stands. For Mr Lamb, the Nicklinson family and others like them to get their way, there has to be a change in the law and this, as both courts stressed, is for Parliament to decide.
Fiercely debated though such a reform would be, we believe that the time has come for MPs to recognise a legal right to die, modelled, perhaps, on the law in the Netherlands. At present, the law is ambivalent, but those physically able to end their lives can do so without committing a crime. It is the most disabled who have no choice but to implicate others. They should be granted the same legal entitlement to bring their torment to an end.