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Assisted Suicide and the Courts: Lather, Rinse, Repeat.

22 Aug, 11 | by Iain Brassington

“Martin”‘s story has been generating a reasonable amount of media and blog attention over the lat few days.  (Udo Schuklenk considers some of the Telegraph‘s coverage, for example, and finds it severely wanting.)  Paralysed after a stroke, “Martin” wants help to end his life; but his wife doesn’t want to be the one to help him.  The next best person would be one of his medical attendants.  According to the DPP’s guidance on assisted suicide, though (which I examined here), prosecution is more likely  if

[t]he suspect was acting in his or her capacity as a medical doctor, nurse, other healthcare professional, a professional carer (whether for payment or not), or as a person in authority, such as a prison officer, and the victim was in his or her care.

“Martin” claims that this is unfair discrimination, and has launched a legal bid to ensure that medics wouldn’t face prosecution for assisting his suicide.  You’d have to have a heart of stone not to sympathise with his plight.  Cast in a certain light, I think he’s got a moral case (though perhaps on slightly more slender grounds than might appear at first: as far as I can tell, he’s got noone lined up who would be willing to help; and absent a willing assistant, the bid looks empty, since it’s one thing for Smith to be entitled to assist Jones’ suicide, but another entirely for Jones to be entitled to Smith’s help).  Whether he’s got a legal one… I’m really not so sure.  And so I think I know how this is going to go.

The judges will hear his case.  They’ll look at the law.  They might acknowledge that they can see “Martin”‘s legal point.  They’ll express heartfelt sympathy.  Then they’ll tell him that there’s nevertheless nothing they can do without a change in the law.  And they’ll tell him to go home.

There’ll be a bit of a media flurry; but the law on assisted suicide won’t change, and the ethical arguments won’t change, and the minds of the people making the arguments won’t change, and “Martin” will still be in his bed.  And in a couple of years, someone whose case is similar but different enough will emerge asking the same sort of thing, and we’ll go through it all again.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

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