Today the Court of Appeal turned down the appeals brought by the widow of Tony Nicklinson and by Paul Lamb which attempted to overturn a ruling against allowing a doctor or medical professional to help a person to die in certain circumstances. Both of these two men because of paralysis could not perform the act of suicide alone.
In the case of Tony Nicklinson the appeal was made by his widow to allow a person in similar circumstances to her late husband to receive assistance to die from a doctor. Paul Lamb (see earlier article) is the victim of a road accident and would require medical assistance to end his life.
The problem here is unchanged. The two families are asking the courts to do something they are not really empowered to do – that is to change the law created by parliament. Judges don’t really have the power to overrule parliament in this way.
There is no doubt that the cases evoke tremendous amounts of sympathy. In addition to numerous euthanasia groups, the British Humanist Association backed Mrs Nicklinson and Paul Lamb, while urging parliament to look again at the law.
One new case emerged today – the case of “Martin…” who is seeking help to travel to the suicide clinic Dignitas in Switzerland. Martin’s wife and family respect his wishes to die, but are unwilling to assist him. He is seeking for either a social or health worker to accompany him to the clinic. Such a person falls outside the undertaking which has been given by Kier Starmer the Director of Public Prosecutions in this matter. His ruling states that providing there are no suspicious circumstances, a family member of close friend who assists a person to commit suicide by travelling with them to a suicide clinic will not be prosecuted. The Appeal Court judges have asked for clarification from the DPP on the status of a professional person assisting in the same way.
Ethically there are those who on religious or intuitive grounds believe that euthanasia is wrong. You only need to look at the Roman Catholic Church or the writings of Aquinas or Kant.
On the other side some Consequentialists (Utilitarians) and Situation Ethicists may vote the opposite way. In ethics there is not only room for disagreement but also a chance to argue on behalf of an individual. There are even Proportionalists, who would want to say that Natural Law is correct and we should have absolute principles, but where there is a “proportional need” then it is right to disobey. (See Bernard Hoose)
But here we are not dealing with ethics alone, we are dealing with ethical decisions that have been enshrined in law. The law in the UK is decided by parliament and no matter how strongly an individual disagrees with that law, judges, the police and each individual has to obey it – until the law is repealed or changed.
What is happening is that the Nicklinsons and Paul Lamb are attempting to bring matters to public attention by pushing away at the courts. In this way, I think, they are trying to sway public opinion behind their cause, if, or when, parliament again debates the issue of assisted suicide.