Paul Lamb, who was previously known as ‘L’, has revealed his true identity in an assisted dying court case. Previously he had the right to anonymity but has decided to waive this right as a way to show his passionate support for his case. Paul Lamb is seeking to establish the right to a doctor-assisted death and his bravery has received the support of the British Humanist Association (BHA). Lamb has also joined forces with the family of the late Tony Nicklinson, a man who also made a legal case for the right to die, and whose widow will make the same case in the Court of Appeal on the 14th and 15th May.
Lamb suffers from a condition which makes his life unbearable and, like Nicklinson, he believes this should entitle him to a doctor-assisted death. Paul is 57 and has been immobilised since 1990 after a terrible road accident. He says that for the past 23 years he has endured a monotonous and painful life. It’s not simply a matter of Lamb having a negative outlook on life or being depressed; his quality of life is so poor that his life is not worth living. His case will be joined to that of Nicklinson’s widow, Jane Nicklinson, who is pursuing a claim under Article 8 of the European Convention, which guarantees a right to a private and family life.
Nicklinson was also left in an unbearable situation. He suffered a horrifying stroke in 2005 which left him with locked-in syndrome, a condition where the individual is conscious but cannot move or communicate verbally due to a complete paralysis of the muscles. He died in August last year after losing his cause, spending the rest of his days in a condition he had no desire to be in; a condition he was denied the right to escape from.
One positive thing that came out from his legal case was that it brought the issue of assisted dying to the public’s attention. And it seems to have had an effect – a poll conducted by YouGov in September last year found that 81% of UK adults support the idea of mentally competent adults with an incurable disease to be able to end their lives with medical assistance, without legal prosecution. Both Lamb and Nicklinson would qualify as “mentally competent adults”, so the majority of the public thinks that they also have a right to die.
The only problem is that these attitudes are not reflected in medical law. If it is true that 81% of the population, the large majority, want to give mentally competent adults the right to die then there should really be a referendum on this issue. By not having one the government is disrespecting the interests of those who are suffering, as well as the public who want to see a change in the law. Assisted dying is illegal under English law and if a doctor deliberately ends someone’s life to relieve them of suffering they could be charged with either manslaughter or murder. The maximum sentence for them would be life in prison. Life in prison for doing something which the doctor, the patient and the general public believe is the right and humane thing to do.
The NHS website does say that there are “alternatives” to assisted dying. It points out that under English law, all adults have the right to refuse treatment, as long as they have “sufficient capacity” (the ability to understand the information at hand and make an informed decision based on that). However, Lamb is not receiving life-sustaining treatment for his condition – he does not depend on artificial respiration to live – so this option of refusing treatment is of no use to him. The only way he could legally die would be to refuse food and water, but of course, he is not considering that – he wants to die painlessly and with dignity.
The problem with the “right to refuse treatment” is that it means the patient will often die a slow and painful death. With assisted dying this issue is avoided since a lethal injection can be administered, offering the patient a quick and painless death. As it stands, the law makes no distinction between a doctor ending the life of a patient with an incurable disease from a murderer ending the life of someone who could be a completely healthy stranger. But there should be a distinction between the two. The doctor is ending someone’s life out of compassion, whereas the same cannot be said of a murderer.
Andrew Copson, BHA Chief Executive, says that “in the absence of legislation on assisted dying, we have to establish the right to a doctor-assisted death through the courts”. The hope is that this court case, as well as others like it, will convince Parliament to consider legalising assisted dying. There is opposition to the BHA’s stance on the issue, however. Dominica Roberts, from the campaign group, Care Not Killing, said: “it would be very dangerous to give [doctors] the right to kill”. The disability rights group Scope has also argued that if assisted dying were legalised it would put the disabled at risk. The disabled might feel pressured to request an assisted death if they were a burden on their family, for example.
These are genuine concerns, but they seem to be outweighed by the rights of patients and their desire to avoid a life of constant suffering. In addition, certain legal safeguards can be put up to ensure that the dangers Care Not Killing and Scope are worried about are avoided. Euthanasia (deliberately ending someone’s life to relieve their suffering) has been legal in the Netherlands since 2002 under the Termination of Life on Request and Assisted Suicide Act. But there are several criteria which must be met if a doctor is to avoid legal prosecution for assisting in the death of a patient. For example, the doctor must offer the patient reasonable alternatives, consult another physician, and report the euthanasia request to a review committee.
These safeguards protect against the “danger” that Dominica Roberts is worried about. As for the worry of Scopes that the disabled will be at risk, the Dutch law also states that the patient’s suffering must be unbearable and hopeless. Being “disabled” would not be a sufficient reason to request an assisted death. In any case, from a liberal point of view, I think that if people have the freedom to choose how they live, they should also have the freedom to choose how they die. They are two sides of the same coin. One’s body and one’s life is one’s own property – it belongs to no-one else. If someone has made a rational and informed decision to end their life because their life is unbearable, they should not be prevented from ending it.