Terminally Ill Man Fights to Legalize Assisted Suicide in UK Courts

Posted: Jul 17, 2017 6:30 PM

In 2015, an attempt to legalize assisted suicide by changing the Suicide Act 1961, failed in U.K. courts. Now, Noel Conway, a 67-year-old man with terminal motor-neuron disease, is challenging the act again. Wanting to choose when and how he dies, he argues the courts should legalize suicide for people with six months or less to live. The high court is receiving his case in a five-day hearing this week. 

Conway had said, “I am going to die, and I have come to terms with this fact. But what I do not accept is being denied the ability to decide the timing and manner of my death. I am not prepared to suffer right to the end, nor do I want to endure a long, drawn-out death in a haze of morphine.” He is expected to live for about a year. 

The penalty for assisting in a suicide can be a jail sentence of up to 14 years. 

Conway said in a BBC interview that he will become a quadriplegic, and “could be in a locked-in syndrome,” which would be a living hell to him. Once active, enjoying sports, he now is confined to a wheelchair and a ventilator. 

His lawyer, Richard Gordon QC, told the court that to deny Conway's request is a violation of human rights.

Dignity in Dying, an advocacy group that is supporting Conway, said on its website, “When death is inevitable, suffering should not be. Along with good care, dying people deserve the choice to control the timing and manner of their death."  It also states, "We do not support a law that would allow anyone to end another’s life. This is an important protection to ensure that an assisted death is completely voluntary.”

Jamie Hale, a disabled poet and activist, spoke out against the legalization of assisted suicide in an article published by The Guardian. Hale writes that were assisted suicide granted to people with only six months to live, it would be difficult to deny people with longer life expectancies, expanding the legislation further. Hale writes that while Conway's  fear of an undignified life as a severely disabled man is understandable, indignity is not inevitable.

“The resources and experience exist to give everyone the care they need to have a dignified, self-directed life, and a painless, smooth death – and we should be campaigning to expand access to those resources, not to replace them with a lethal cocktail,” Hale writes.

Advocates for disabled and terminally ill people believe that if the case is successful, their rights would be compromised. Their protection would also be threatened. Hale said that living with the assistance of caregivers would be seen as a "luxury," with death being the cheaper and more convenient option. 

“Disabled and terminally ill people are being told that, while other lives can improve and other people should be deterred from killing themselves, our lives are so bad we should actually be offered assisted suicide, and it would be best for other people if we accepted it.” 

Not Dead Yet UK is an organization of "disabled people in the UK" who oppose assisted suicide. In a press release, the organization said it was sending lawyers to court in opposition to Conway's case and the change in legislation. 

Conway is a member of Humanists UK, who is also intervening, but on his behalf, in the case.