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The Law on Assisted Suicide: Time for the Buck to Stop

Yesterday, three judges representing the England and Wales Court of Appeal unanimously dismissed a challenge to a High Court ruling that Parliament, rather than judges, should decide whether the law on assisted dying should change.  The challenge was mounted by Paul Lamb (who is paralysed from the neck down and wishes to end his life, but is physically unable to do so) and Jane Nicklinson (the widow of Tony Nicklinson, a sufferer of locked-in syndrome who unsuccessfully appealed to the High Court to change the law on assisted suicide prior to his death).

In defence of this judgement, the Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge stressed that a decision to change the law on assisted suicide is one that must be made by parliament, not by the courts. This is apparent in section 154 of the Court of Appeal Judgement which states, in reference to the challenge presented by Lamb and Nicklinson:


“Much of the argument before us carried with it expressly, or by implication, and certainly by undertone, the suggestion that a way should somehow be found to alleviate some of the more harrowing consequences of . . . statutory provisions (on assisted suicide) as they impact on the lives of these appellants. . .  The short answer must be, and always has been, that the law relating to assisting suicide cannot be changed by judicial decision. The repeated mantra that, if the law is to be changed, it must be changed by Parliament, does not demonstrate judicial abnegation of our responsibilities, but rather highlights fundamental constitutional principles”.


This may be right. We do not believe that judges should act as the moral compass of the nation on an issue which is divisive as assisted suicide: judges are not necessarily moral experts, if there can even be said to be such a thing. But there is one point which this ruling prompts which all sides of the debate on assisted suicide should agree upon, and that is that the time for passing the buck is over: It is high time that the issue of changing the law on assisted suicide was discussed on its own merits, rather than on the basis of who has the authority to change the law.

People like Paul Lamb and Tony Nicklinson face unimaginable suffering. We owe it to these people to ensure that the arguments both for and against changing the law on assisted suicide are taken seriously by people who do have the authority to change the law. Moreover, those who agree with the current law on assisted suicide should welcome the chance to defend it in an open forum. If the law on assisted suicide is to be maintained, it should surely be on the basis of moral principles, rather than bureaucracy.


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