THE BLOG

English Law on Euthanasia Needs Clarifying

26/09/2016 15:45

Euthanasia translates directly as an 'easy death', however English law on euthanasia is anything but easy to understand and is in desperate need for reform as the recent death of Nina Adamowicz and Marieke Vervoort's desire to be assisted to die demonstrate.

In 1993 the House of Lords, then the highest court in the UK, ruled that it would be lawful to withhold life-sustaining medical treatment from Anthony Bland. Anthony had been crushed in the Hillsborough disaster and as a result his brain had been starved of oxygen leaving him in what doctors described as a persistent vegetative state. Anthony had no hope of recovering and their Lordships held that where it was not in a patients 'best interest' to be kept alive it would lawful to cease treating them. Their Lordships also called on Parliament to introduce a law clarifying issues around euthanasia, however there is still no clear statute on the issue.

Where an adult patient of sound mind expresses a clear desire that treatment be ceased the common law however is clear. Simply any touching of another against their consent would constitute the crime of battery. It is everyone's inalienable right to be left alone, even if in doing so you are leaving them alone to die. This is what was reported on in the press recently when Nina Adamowicz won the right to demand that doctors turn off the pacemaker that was keeping her alive, Nina died in her sleep as she wanted. To persist to subject Nina to invasive medical intervention without her consent, even if that intervention was keeping her alive is legally and, I believe, morally wrong.

This is very different from how Belgian paralympian Marieke Vervoort recently said she wishes to die and the two cases highlight a dichotomy at the heart of English law. Marieke's disability is degenerative, leaving her in chronic pain and subject to frequent fits and this has led her to contemplate an assisted death, where her doctor would help her to end her life. In Marieke's native Belgium, which has one of the most liberal laws on assisted dying in the world, such a death would be lawful. In contrast in English law assisting another to die is a criminal act.

English law draws a clear legal distinction between killing and letting die which has no clear moral basis and in reality leads to secrecy and confusion. It is, for example, lawful for a doctor to prescribe a fatal dose of a painkiller like morphine to a patient if the primary purpose to relieve her pain; that the patient will inevitably die as a result and the doctor knows this is ignored in law. It also seems that if you were to help a loved one to travel abroad for an assisted death that you would not face prosecution, although if you were to be prosecuted you could face up to 14 years in prison. These examples highlight the peculiarities of English law which draw distinctions where there is no moral justification for such.

I am not, on this occasion, calling for the legalisation of physician assisted dying. The point I am trying to make is that English law is a mess which leads to secretive practices and a lack of clarity. Wherever the law decides to draw the line between what is lawful and what isn't that line should be clearly drawn so we all know with certainty what our rights are.

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