It is a problem that has troubled court justices and lawyers for decades now, with an increasing number of sufferers of such diseases as Motor Neurone Disease stepping up their efforts to make assisted suicide legal. The question to the court still remains – is there a right to die?

The recent judgement in the long, nine year campaign of Tony Nicklinson ended with disappointment for supporters of assisted dying and this ‘so-called’ right to die. Five Justices held that the questions they were being asked involved moral judgements rather than points of law and the matter had to be addressed by a democratically-elected Parliament. Therefore they could not rule in favour of the appellants due to the moral nature of this case, so once again the courts have turned to parliament for aid to resolve this long-standing issue.  There was an air of underlying suggestion that the court was sending a message to parliament: sort it out or we will.

This case is just the latest in a long line now of high-profile cases that have asked for the law to be changed on assisted dying. The issue stems from the case of Tony Bland, a boy that was tragically caught up in the events at Hillsborough and left in a Persistent Vegetative State. He was never likely to leave this state so his doctor stopped the nutrition he was receiving through his feeding tube. The House of Lords held that withdrawing the treatment was an omission to treat and not an act itself. So it was not breaking the doctor’s duty to act.

From Bland the issue has moved on and was really brought to the forefront with the case of Diane Pretty. Mrs Pretty suffered from severe MND and in an interview with Panorama on whether she wanted to die she stated: ‘I am already dead’. The case that she brought was for her husband not to be prosecuted under the Suicide Act 1961 for helping her die. The DPP acknowledged the severity of the case but was unable to stop prosecution for any action. The case made its way to the House of Lords where Lord Bingham stated that if assisted suicide laws were relaxed then there would be room for them to be abused. The case eventually made its way up to the European Court of Human Rights in which Mrs Pretty put forward a case under three sections of the Human Rights Act 1998. First, under Article Two the right to life, which she argued included the right to end her life – however, this was rejected by the ECHR. Secondly, under Article Three, the right not to suffer torture, in which it was held that her condition could amount to degrading treatment; this was not inflicted by the state. Finally, Article Eight, the right to a private and family life, which opened the argument whether the issues of the death were an aspect of the death. Mrs Pretty ultimately lost her case and sadly died in 2002, but her case did bring up a very important legal argument.

What is interesting is the point made by Lord Bingham in the House of Lords that if the law on assisted suicide was loosened then there would be room for it to be abused. If we make allowances for the right reasons, would the law be abused? This seems to be one of the main reasons why judges are reluctant to rule and parliament is somewhat fearful of changing the law. Could it lead to some having their lives taken because they are too scared to do it themselves? And, would we just be finding a loophole to the law on murder in a way? Take for example, someone young and depressed looking to take their own life yet too scared of doing it themselves so they ask someone to assist them. Is that assisted suicide or just murder? Or consider someone disabled and incapable of expressing their own wishes, yet is sitting on a fortune and has a relative eager for inheritance. Since it would be difficult to prove whether they intended to die this makes determining assisted suicide from murder a tricky issue.

If the law was changed, it is likely that parliament and the courts will have to put in a lot of time and effort to regulate the law, and with constant cuts being made in the justice system it seems highly unlikely that this will happen. The second option is to change the law but be ready for the massive backlash and queue of cases that will inevitably come flooding through the courts with so many ambiguous areas.

With the Assisted Dying Bill being passed through parliament at this very moment, I return to my question; is there a right to die? The answer to this is long and complex, some will argue that it is my life and I should be able to choose when to end it, and some will take a more conservative approach weighing up the ethical issues involved, viewing the sanctity of life argument as the most important factor. Given that this question encompasses many complex arguments, there may never be an answer to this multifaceted issue. It remains for now, in the hands of the politicians.

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