How much respect does the law really give you for your private life? Your family life? Your private arrangements between you and those you love and who love you? This apparently straightforward question is one that our highest court wants to decide for us. They are still ‘deliberating.’ Perhaps they think we are “just not capable” of deciding how to live and die. Is that really the case?
Slavery(1) was abolished in 1833. You now have the right to live your life as you please, without interference from others, and without interfering with their lives — at least that’s how the theory goes. One day you will die but, while alive, you must have the right to die how, and when, you will, or your status as a human being wil be reduced. The courts, so far, don’t agree. It remains more a case of, if you can get away with it, fine! The Court of Appeal holds that there is no right to commit suicide, since the Suicide Act(2):
“. . . can more accurately be described as conferring an immunity from the criminal process for those who actually commit suicide. A fortiori, if there is no right to kill yourself, there can be no right, fundamental or otherwise, to require the State to allow others to assist you to die or to kill you”(3)
Having decided what the law can ridiculously get away with, religious, political, and well-meaning motherliness push lessening your rights further. I can buy a car, a perfectly lethal mechanism to end my life or that of another, and no-one suggests cars should be banned. Yet there are people seriously wanting to ban sales of helium. If we compare helium to cars, there is little doubt in my mind which is the most dangerous and which is the most dignified. In America, ordinary plastic bags and tubing (“Gladd bags”) were banned.(4) Cars and guns aparently are ok, but plastic bags are not (the tubing happened to be the right size for conecting a tank of helium, but these bags and tubing are available from many a highstreet store).
Last year, pressure was put on Exit resulting in the loss of our credit card trading facilities. The main inconvenience is to overseas members, for whom paying their magazine subscription becomes more cumbersome. The silliness was probably aimed at restricting information — information that can be gleaned from newspapers and medical books, hundreds of underground internet sites (not this one) or more responsibly and reliably from Exit publications (which anyone can buy from Amazon). What happens when you make it hard for people to get sensible information is that they resort to bootleg sources. Books or websites with inaccurate instructions, or horrible and undignified methods of suicide. Chemical suicides (a Russian roulette that endangers other people), potpourris of pills or other backstreet methods.
Tony Nicklinson(5) was refused help by the Courts and starved himself to death. Luckily, he died well. Starvation is a particularly risky method for many people and there are many cases of a horrble ddeath when they are unprepared.(6) Indeed, no less an authority than Lord Browne-Wilkinson stated:
"How can it be lawful to allow a patient to die slowly, though painlessly, over a period of weeks from lack of food but unlawful to produce his immediate death by a lethal injection, thereby saving his family from yet another ordeal to add to the tragedy that has already struck them?"(7)
A patient that cannot move has less options when it comes to choosing the time and manner of his or her own death. Why do we do it? The likely answer was succinctly put in a recent Law digest:
"Rather than face head on the most difficult fact of life, that it must end, we force people with severe physical disabilities to continue their lives despite their express and maintained desires to the contrary, even though we do not do so to able-bodied people. In a society striving for equal opportunities in all other areas, this anomaly cannot be ignored."(8)
The Supreme Court (U.K.) is currently grappling with this question of assisted suicide, since severely paralysed people are disadvantaged and unable to make a simple choice on how and when to die in the same way that able-bodied people can choose. The issue is whether the prohibition on assisted suicide is incompatible with the right to respect for private and family life. If the answer is yes, to comply with such rights, the Suicide Act 1961 should include a defence of necessity, so as to make it not unlawful for a doctor to assist in a person’s suicide when that person has made a voluntary, clear, settled and informed wish to end his or her life (but is unable to do so without medical assistance). Alternatively, if no such defence is available, the Court should declare that, in such circumstances, the Suicide Act 1961 is be incompatible with the rights to private and family life.(9)
Some people hope that our so-called “right-to-die” will seventually just go away. If only it would die, and its ashes swept under a table! But it doesn’t go away. While life goes on, the prospect of our eath, and of dying well or dying badly, continues to be a live issue.(10)
(1) The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 (citation 3 & 4 Will. IV c. 73)
(2) The Suicide Act 
(3) R (Nicklinson) v A Primary Care Trust  EWCA Civ 961 (para 55)(4) “A less than Gladd end” (ExitEuthanasiaBlog)
(5) Mail Online The Independent (newspaper reports on Tony Nicklinson)
(6) Overview of rational suicide methods, including starvation
(7) Airedale Hospital Trustees v Bland  UKHL 5
(8) Elaine Freer, Halsbury’s Law Exchange
(9) Current Supreme Court Cases, R (on the application of Nicklinson and another) (AP) (Appellants) v Ministry of Justice (Respondent)
(10) See also, Rosalind English, “Is there a right to die in English law?”
Regular readers interested in legal nuts & bolts: please find links to cases & statutes in the right-hand column.