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Essay: The Human Rights Act 1998: Euthanasia

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Euthanasia by definition is ‘the painless killing of a patient suffering from an incurable and painful disease or in an irreversible coma’ (English Oxford Dictionary, 2016). The word Euthanasia is derived from the Greek meaning of ‘easy death’. It can also be referred to as ‘assisted suicide’.

There are two classifications of ways in which a person can assist anothers’ suicide. One classification being active euthanasia; whereby a person deliberately interjects to end a persons’ life. The second being passive euthanasia whereby a person withdraws or withholds vital treatment that is pivotal in ensuring survival of another person, i.e. withholding antibiotics to someone with an infection such as pneumonia.

Euthanasia has no individual legal position with-in English Law, however, the Suicide Act 1961 makes an explicit offence of criminal liability for complicity in anothers’ suicide (Article 21). The Suicide Act 1961 is an Act of Parliament of the United Kingdom which decriminalised the act of suicide in England & Wales so that those who may have attempted such a deed and failed, were no longer prosecuted (Article 10).

There are two fundamental groups of arguments regarding euthanasia – the first one being religion. Although legal, suicide is still considered to be morally wrong, or ‘a sin’ in many cultures and religions. The four most prevalent religions in the United Kingdom at present are Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism. Each of the four aforementioned religions preach that only God(s) has the divine right to end life; and to end the life of another, or to take your own, is spiritually forbidden and considered blasphemy of the highest order.

The second argument relates to the topic of consent. This argument brings into question the ability of a terminal ill patient to make an informed and rational decision on whether they want their life to end. It also suggests that relatives or medical professionals may pressure patients into accepting euthanasia against their will. ‘Voluntary euthanasia’ is when a person makes a well informed and conscious decision to end their own life and asks for assistance to do so. ‘Non-voluntary euthanasia’ is whereby a person is unable to give consent to the ending of their life, i.e. a person takes the life of a relative in a coma or vegetative state because they believe it is in the patients best interests and is what they would ask for were they able. In UK law, voluntary and non-voluntary euthanasia may be regarded as either voluntary manslaughter or murder dependent upon circumstance surrounding a case. Finally, there is ‘Involuntary euthanasia’ whereby a person ends anothers life against their expressed wishes. This type of euthanasia is customarily considered by the law to be murder. The Suicide Act (1961) declares that all classifications of assisted suicide are illegal and punishable by up to 14 years’ imprisonment (Gov.uk, 2016). If you have been diagnosed with a terminal illness and are reaching the end of life, you have the right to favourable palliative care. A palliative care plan will include medications to control pain, alleviate other symptoms and sustain life; as well providing psychological or spiritual support. However, under English law – all patients have the right to refuse necessary medical treatment that may in turn end their life; the condition being that they must satisfy the criteria laid out by the Mental Capacity Act (2005). The Mental Capacity Act states that a persons’ mind (or brain) must be free from disturbance or impairment such as physiological damage caused by trauma or disease, or a mental illness such as psychosis (NHS, 2014). It is also possible for a health care professional to withdraw life-sustaining treatments such as dialysis if a patient has been in a state of impaired consciousness for at least 12 months. This is legal in UK law and does not constitute ‘involuntary euthanasia’ as long as health care professionals discuss with peers and relatives of the patient and come to the agreed decision in a clinical capacity.

The Human Rights Act is a UK law passed in 1998 which means that you can defend your rights in the UK courts. It also means that public bodies including the Government, the Police and local councils must treat all persons equally and with fairness, dignity and respect (Liberty, 2016). Since the inauguration of the Human Rights Act in 1998, campaigners in favour of Euthanasia have argued that the denial of power to unburden oneself from great pain and suffering is a direct violation of Article 3 of the convention which forbids the inhumane and degrading treatment of a person. It has been argued that UK law surmounts to discrimination when considering the legality of suicide itself; suggesting that the law violates an individuals’ right to die. It is also argued that it is a violation of privacy and family life which is protected by Article 8 (In-brief, 2016). Meaning the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights may recognise an individuals’ right to life but does not recognise their inherent right to death (In-brief, 2016).

One infamous case in which these violations were vehemently argued was the case of Dianne Pretty v. UK (2002). Diane Pretty was a female UK national who was dying from a degenerative disease of the muscles known as motor neurone disease; to which there is no known cure. Pretty was in the advanced stages of the disease which meant she was paralysed from the neck down and her quality of life was considered extremely poor (Case of Pretty v. UK, 2002). Although was she physically handicapped, it was agreed upon that her capacity to make a rational and well informed decision was intact, thus satisfying the conditions of the Mental Capacity Act 2005. Therefore, Dianne Pretty requested that due to the distressing and undignified nature of the disease, her husband be able to assist in the premature ending of her life. However, as aforementioned, under article 2(1) of the Suicide Act 1961 it is a criminal offence to assist in the suicide of another meaning her husband faced prosecution if he aided or abetted his wife in anyway. A request to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) was made in 2001 to grant Mr. Pretty immunity from prosecution if he were to assist in his wifes’ suicide, although this was refused. The DPP responded with a letter stating that: “Successive Directors – and Attorneys General – have explained that they will not grant immunities that condone, require, or purport to authorise or permit the future commission of any criminal offence, no matter how exceptional the circumstances. …” (Pretty v. UK, 2002). Following numerous unsuccessful appeals, Mr and Mrs. Pretty lodged an application with the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on 21st December, 2001. In January, 2002 the case was given ‘urgent priority’ status by the court and the hearing was held on March 19th 2002 to discuss both admissibility and validity of the case. Mrs. Pretty argued that there had been several violations of her human rights (as laid out by the Human Rights Act 1998) in relation to the DPPs’ decision.

Pretty criticised Article 2 (Right to Life) of the convention which protects a persons’ right to live, but no to die. It was argued that a persons’ right to live, also constitutes a persons’ right to not live. Another argument was that Article 3 (No torture, inhuman or degrading treatment) obliged the UK Government to not only refrain from dispensing inhumane and/or degrading treatment upon persons with-in its’ jurisdiction, but also to actively protect those persons from being subjected to such treatment(s); therefore, the only effective solution in order to safe guard Mrs. Pretty and prevent further degradation on her part, was to allow her husband to assist in the ending of her life. Pretty also claimed that Article 8 (Right to a private and family life) had been taken away from her as she was unable to participate in any ‘normal’ act of family life and due to her condition had no access to neither privacy or dignity.

Finally, Pretty argued a violation of Article 14 (No discrimination) which states that all of the rights and freedoms contained in the Human Rights Act must be protected and applied without discrimination. Concerning this Article, Pretty alleged that she had suffered discrimination as she was treated in the same way as those whose circumstances were altogether very different. She argued that she was being prevented from exercising her right to end her own life due to her disability. Pretty acknowledged that the Government was justified in exercising its duty to protect the vulnerable but also countered that she was not in-fact vulnerable, therefore there was no applicable justification for the disparity of treatment. The ECtHR determined that the facts of the case fell within the ambit of Article 8 (Case Summary, 2002), which was considered in conjunction with Article 14, which focused on Prettys’ claim that unlike those who were physically capable, she was being denied the right to end her own life due to her disability. The ECtHR reiterated that under the convention, discrimination may encompass equal treatment of those with/in different conditions, but emphasised that member states have a margin of discretion (known as a margin of appreciation) in their own application of the convention. It was therefore decided that the UK Government had been justified in their reluctance to create varying legal regimes concerning assisted suicide for those who were both physically able and unable; citing that it would undermine their duty to safeguard life as set out in the Suicide Act of 1961. The Court was unanimous in finding no violations of Articles 2, 3, 8, or 14 and Dianne Pretty died as a result of her condition in a hospice, aged 43, in May 2002.

Assisted Suicide always has been, and most likely always will be, a hugely controversial topic. It is easy to see why those in power are reluctant to make changes to the laws surrounding euthanasia; the House of Commons for example, had not voted on the subject for over 20 years until September 2015. There are websites such as ‘Dignity in Dying’ which rally for the legalisation of Assisted Suicide. In an independent* survey carried out in 2015, the campaign group for Dignity in Dying reported that 82% of the questioned populous supported a change in law regarding assisted dying for terminally ill adults. There are also those in positions of relative power who feel compelled to come forward and push for a thorough review on what some consider a ‘blanket law’. Rob Marris MP tabled a Private Member’s Bill in the House of Commons on assisted dying in June 2015 to ensure there was a safeguarded framework to give terminally ill individuals choice over their end of life care (DID, 2016). It was debated in the House of Commons in September 2015 but after a passionate debate, it was overwhelmingly rejected by 330 to 118 (Rowena Mason, 2015). Under the new proposals, people with less than six months to live could have been prescribed a lethal dose of drugs, which they had to be able to take themselves (BBC, 2015). There was also the attached condition that two doctors and a High Court judge would need to approve each case. Another variation of The Assisted Dying Bill, originally drafted by Lord Falconer in 2013, is now once again making its way through the Progress of the Bill. The first reading took place in the House of Lords on June 9th 2016, although the second reading is still yet to be scheduled. If the bill is successful in passing the second reading it will then undergo the Committee Stage, then the Report Stage, and finally the third reading – all before it reaches the House of Lords to repeat each process again. With a BBC survey (Gallagher & Roxby, 2015) taken last year showing 74% of MPs oppose the legislation of Assisted Suicide – it does not appear that successful re-evaluation of the law will take place anytime in the near future.


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