The European Court of Human Rights declined July 16 to rule on the merits in two cases challenging the United Kingdom’s physician-assisted suicide laws.
Under the Suicide Act of 1961, physician-assisted suicide is banned in the United Kingdom.
For many disability advocacy groups, such as Scope, which argues that assisted suicide bans protect against abuse, the ruling is welcome.
“Many tell us they fear that a change in the law could lead to disabled people, and other vulnerable people, feeling under pressure to end their lives,” Scope Interim Chief Executive Mark Atkinson told the BBC. “Why is it that when people who are not disabled want to commit suicide, we try to talk them out of it, but when a disabled person wants to commit suicide, we focus on how we can make that possible?”
Jane Nicklinson, the plaintiff in one of the cases, argued the ban violates Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the rights to respect for privacy and family life. Nicklinson’s husband, who had locked-down syndrome, challenged the ban in UK courts in 2011. When these arguments were unsuccessful, Nicklinson voluntary declined further medical treatment and died in 2012.
Paul Lamb, a man with paralysis who wishes to end his life, argues his rights have been violated under Articles 6 (fair hearing and access to the court), 8, 13 (right to an effective remedy) and 14 (prohibition on discrimination) of the Convention.
In regard to Nicklinson’s case, the ECHR unanimously found that the case was “inadmissible,” on the grounds that it would be inappropriate for the Court to supersede the UK Legislature, where the issue has been hotly contested.
“In the United Kingdom, the assessment as to the risk and likely incidence of abuse if the prohibition on assisted suicide were to be relaxed was made by Parliament in enacting section 2(a) of the 1961 Act, a provision that has been reconsidered several times by Parliament in recent years,” the Court stated. “Requiring courts to give a judgment on the merits of a complaint about the prohibition could have the effect of forcing upon an institutional role not envisaged by the domestic constitutional order.”
In doing so, the ECHR noted that Nicklinson had “failed to show there’s been developments” in the 13 years since it is issued its Pretty v. The United Kingdom decision, when it unanimously found that the UK’s physician-assisted suicide ban did not violate the Convention.
The ECHR dismissed Lamb’s case because he had failed to exhaust his remedies in the UK Court system, as was required before he could bring his petition. Specifically, it highlighted the fact that at the UK High Court, Lamb had only challenged the country’s prohibition against voluntary suicide, as opposed to physician-assisted suicide.
Physician-assisted suicide is legal in Canada, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Colombia, and also in 5 states in the United States.