Sarah Griffith’s mother battled dementia for 14 years before passing away in November. The 87-year-old had told her daughter for more than a decade that, when the time came, she wanted to take her own life, rather than let the condition take over.
But because assisted dying is currently illegal, there was very little Griffith could do when her mother became seriously ill. “I felt like I failed her when she died,” Griffith said outside the Royal Courts of Justice on Tuesday.
The 59-year-old was there to support Noel Conway’s fight to change the law on assisted dying. The retired lecturer, 68, from Shrewsbury, suffers from motor neurone disease, and is fighting for the right to a “peaceful and dignified” death. He wants to be able to enlist help from professionals to bring about his death, but the current law prevents him from doing so.
In a show of support for his cause, dozens of supporters wearing bright pink printed t-shirts reading #ImWithNoel gathered outside the Royal Courts of Justice for the latest hearing in the legal challenge.
But just metres away, disability campaigners had set up a giant graveyard to oppose Conway’s challenge, saying the case was a “slippery slope” and could lead to the deaths of more disabled people. In the sunny forecourt, as the legal battle was launched inside, the protesters illustrated just how emotional, and divisive, the issue of assisted dying remains.
Griffith, from Guernsey, said that her father, who died in 2003 after contracting oesophageal cancer, had also asked her to end his life, just as her mother had asked her years later.
“My mother wanted to go when she was ready, but the dementia stole that from her and it [assisted dying] was not legal,” Griffith said. “I felt like I failed her when she died. And my dad. He had oesophageal cancer and he was completely compos mentis when he died and he begged me and begged me and begged me: ‘Please just stick a pillow over my head.’ I feel awful about it.”
Conway said before Tuesday’s hearing that he feels “entombed” by his illness and that he should not have to go through a “distressing and undignified” death.
Sarah Wootton, chief executive at Dignity in Dying, which is supporting the case, said Conway should be given the choice to decide how and when he wants to die. “It’s about Noel and his right, as he sees it, to have choice and freedom to die on his own terms at the end of his life.” she said outside the court.
Wootton said that Conway’s human rights are being threatened. He is currently on a ventilator for 23 hours a day, is in a wheelchair and has almost no movement below his neck. He is too unwell to travel to London for the hearing but will watch proceedings over a video link from Telford Crown Court.
But disability campaigners are anxious that the case will set a precedent, and could lead to diminished care for disabled people. Merv Kenward, whose wife, Nikki, is disabled said he is concerned that his partner, who is “vulnerable to any change in the law” could be adversely impacted in the future.
When asked whether Conway should have the choice to end his life, Kenward said: “I can see that, although there are consequences in our battle to stop it happening, I think there’s just a sense of what’s for the greater good.”
Why Is The Case At The High Court?
Under the 1961 Suicide Act, anyone who assists the death of someone else is liable for up to 14 years in prison.
Noel Conway’s legal team say this violates his right to respect for his private life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
In a hearing in July last year, his legal team asked for a judicial review of the current law, and a declaration of incompatibility with his rights under the European convention.
Lawyers for Conway are arguing that assisted dying should be available to people aged 18 and above, who are of sound mind, with fewer than six months to live, and that each application should be reviewed by a High Court judge.
In October last year, the High Court rejected Conway’s application.
In January this year, the Court of Appeal gave Conway permission to challenge the High Court decision, and this is what is being argued in court this week.
Wootton said those opposing the case are basing their arguments on hypothetical scenarios. “This isn’t about disability, this is about somebody who is dying,” Wootton said. “And Noel is a good example. Why can’t he decide for himself? Why should you decide for him?”
Conway is being represented by law firm Irwin Mitchell and supported by the campaign group Dignity in Dying. His appeal is opposed by the Secretary of State for Justice, with Humanists UK, Care Not Killing and Not Dead Yet UK also making submissions.
The appeal before Sir Terence Etherton, Sir Brian Leveson and Lady Justice King is expected to last three days.