The 1961 Suicide Act breaches human rights protecting dignity and personal autonomy and should be declared illegal, the high court has been told.
At the opening of a week-long courtroom challenge aimed at legalising assisted dying, Richard Gordon QC said risk could not be entirely removed from making difficult medical decisions at the end of patients’ lives.
Gordon represents Noel Conway, 67, a retired lecturer who has motor neurone disease, a terminal degenerative illness.
He is reliant for 20 hours each day on a non-invasive ventilation device and is said to feel “entombed” as his condition deteriorates. Conway has been diagnosed as having less than a year to live.
Conway, who wants medical help to end his life in the UK, is too unwell to attend the hearing in court nine of the Royal Courts of Justice in London. He is expected to participate by videolink on Wednesday.
The court has been told that section two of the act, which criminalises any attempt to encourage or assist another person in killing themselves, is incompatible with article eight of the European convention on human rights, which guarantees a right to respect for private life and personal autonomy.
Gordon said those over 18, diagnosed with a terminal illness and given less than six months to live, who have made a voluntary, clear and settled decision to die and have the ability to undertake a final act, should be allowed medical assistance to carry out their wishes in the UK.
Currently, those wishing to end their lives in a more dignified and less painful way say they have to travel to Dignitas in Switzerland. Conway and his supporters say the UK ban forces them to make that choice far earlier than should be the case.
“The aim of the challenge is to ensure autonomy for everyone in this group,” Gordon said. “Maybe there will be some risks [to weak and vulnerable people], but risks are already present in the law.
“The choices facing the claimant are therefore stark and unpalatable: seek to bring about his own death while he is physically able to do so, but before he is ready to do so, or await death with no control over when and how it comes.”
The legal challenge, he told the court, was not about morality, but the law being incompatible with human rights.
Speaking ahead of the hearing, Lady Meacher, the chair of Dignity in Dying, said: “About 80% of the population support a change in the law to make assisted suicide legal. People feel passionate about this issue and MPs need to understand that.”
This is the first challenge to the law since the case brought by Tony Nicklinson, who was paralysed after having a stroke. His claim was dismissed in 2014 by the supreme court, which said it was important for parliament to debate the issues before any decision was made by the courts.
In 2015, the House of Commons rejected a private member’s bill to introduce assisted dying. It was talked out before MPs had an opportunity to debate the bill in detail.
Linda Deverell, a patron of Dignity in Dying, which supports Conway’s challenge, said before the hearing that a system requiring the approval of at least two doctors and a judge for assisted dying would provide sufficient legal safeguards.
“A law like that is very tight and it’s been working perfectly well in the US state of Oregon for the past 20 years,” she said.
Deverell’s husband had terminal cancer and travelled to Belgium to end his life. “It was absolutely his choice,” she said. “He had to go earlier than if he could make the choice here.
“Not everyone can do it. People talk about ending their lives, but when it comes to it and saying: tThis is the moment, not all are comfortable with their own mortality.
“My husband would have had a few more weeks [if assisted dying had been legal in the UK]. He always had a very bad reaction to morphine. The last few weeks when the cancer was in his bones, liver and lungs were very painful.”
The case is being heard by three judges, Lord Justice Sales, Mrs Justice Whipple and Mr Justice Garnham. The case is opposed by the justice secretary. A judgment is not expected until autumn.
Campaigners opposed to legalising euthanasia also protested outside the court. Phil Friend, a co-founder of Not Dead Yet UK, said: “A change in the law is a terrifying prospect to the vast majority of disabled and terminally ill people who work hard towards achieving equality for all.
“Until we have reached that objective, assisted suicide will remain a dangerous and prejudiced option, likely to increase suffering and distress.”
The hearing continues.