Right-to-die case reaches the Supreme court: key questions

Plaintiffs argue UK's right-to-die laws are 'barbaric' and contravene EU human rights convention

LAST UPDATED AT 12:15 ON Mon 16 Dec 2013

THE Supreme Court is hearing arguments by right-to-die activists in the latest round of a long-running legal battle over the legality of assisted suicide. The court will have to decide if the law prohibiting assisted euthanasia is "incompatible" with the European Convention on Human Rights, the BBC reports. Here are six key questions about the landmark case:  

Who is involved in the case?

The legal challenge involves three men and their relatives. Paul Lamb is a former builder who has only a tiny degree of movement in his right arm and has spent the past 23 years "receiving round-the-clock care", reports The Independent. He was joined in his legal challenge to the UK's right-to-die laws by Tony Nicklinson, who was paralysed from the neck down in 2005. Nicklinson died earlier this year after refusing food. A third man, who like Nicklinson is a victim of locked-in syndrome, can only be identified as Martin. He wants it to be lawful for a doctor or nurse to help him travel abroad to die with the help of a suicide organisation in Switzerland, the BBC says. Martin's wife and other family want no involvement in his suicide.

Why do the men want to end their lives?

The men and their relatives believe they are condemned to "suffer in silence" because they are unable to kill themselves despite the fact their lives had become "unbearable".

What does the law say at the moment?

Any doctor who administers a lethal injection would be charged with murder. The Suicide Act (1961) in England or Wales (but not Scotland) also makes it illegal to assist someone take their life, the Independent explains. But those who assist loved ones to travel overseas to places where assisted suicide is legal do not face prosecution. Doctors are allowed to withdraw treatment and fluids from patients at the very end of their lives.

What do the men want?

The men believe Britain's right-to-die laws are "barbaric and inhumane" and want the right to end their lives without incriminating the medical staff or relatives who might assist their suicide. In late July, three of the UK's most senior judges rejected Lamb's appeal "to be allowed assistance to end his own life". The Lord Chief Justice, sitting with Master of the Rolls Lord Dyson and Lord Justice Elias, concluded that the laws relating to assisted suicide could only be changed by Parliament, the Independent says. However, Martin won his case seeking clearer prosecution guidance from the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) for health workers who help others die.

Who opposes changes to the law and why?

The principal objection – that legal euthanasia weakens society's respect for the sanctity of life – has been cited by religious groups, disability campaigners and health professionals. It has also been argued that accepting the idea of legal euthanasia is an acknowledgement that some lives are worth less than others. Finally, there have been suggestions that legalising assisted suicide would put society on a slippery slope to involuntary euthanasia, ie: the killing of those deemed undesirable by society. Practical objections include the idea that it puts too much power into the hands of doctors and it puts vulnerable people under pressure to end their lives.

What must the Supreme Court decide?

The four-day hearing involves a panel of nine judges rather than the normal five. It will have to decide if the law prohibiting assisted suicide is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights by denying Lamb, and others like him, the right to choose the timing of their death, the BBC says. The Supreme Court will also deal with the DPP's appeal against the Court of Appeal's ruling in Martin's favour. · 

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