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Ethics briefings
  1. Veronica English,
  2. Gillian Romano-Critchley,
  3. Julian Sheather,
  4. Ann Somerville
  1. Medical Ethics Department, British Medical Association

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    Human rights and assisted suicide

    The Human Rights Act 1998, which came into force in the UK in October 2000, has not prompted the flood of litigation or radical decisions that some commentators predicted. There was speculation, for instance, that the act might be used to challenge the current law on assisted suicide and in fact this has been considered in detail by the courts.

    A woman with motor neurone disease applied to the court for a guarantee that if her husband helped her to commit suicide, he would not be prosecuted.1 Discussion was particularly interesting in the court of first instance prior to the case going to the House of Lords in November 2001. Although the case before the court of first instance fell on other grounds, the human rights issues were addressed in detail.

    Assisting suicide is illegal in the UK under the Suicide Act 1961. “A person who aids, abets counsels or procures the suicide of another, or an attempt by another to commit suicide, shall be liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years.”2 The court heard it argued that this universal prohibition on assisting suicide was incompatible with the rights of a person who wanted to commit suicide, and was mentally competent but physically unable to do so.

    The conflict between two fundamental human rights in the European Convention on Human Rights3—the right to life (article 2) and the right to decide what will and will not be done with one's own body (article 3)—was central to the case. Article 2 requires states to prevent people being “deprived of life”. It doesn't, however, require states to take positive steps to force life on the unwilling. Thus the court concluded that article 2 might permit the state to allow assisted suicide, …

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