The following article was written by John Bingham and published on December 15 in the Telegraph UK. Link to the original article.
One of Britain’s most eminent authorities on end-of-life law has issued a warning against “tinkering” with assisted suicide on the eve of a landmark Supreme Court challenge.
Baroness Butler-Sloss, the former President of the High Court Family Division, argued that the current law strikes a careful balance between justice and mercy, adding: “We tinker with it at our peril”.
Relaxing the law to allow assisted suicide in certain circumstances would turn a long-established legal boundary into nothing more than a weak “line in the sand”, she insisted.
Her warning, in an article in The Sunday Telegraph, will be seen as a message to some of Britain’s most senior judges, who will begin hearing an attempt to introduce a right to die under human rights legislation.
A full panel of nine Supreme Court Justices, headed by Lord Neuberger, the court's President, will convene tomorrow to hear the culmination of three separate legal challenges to the current ban, stretching back five years.
Jane Nicklinson, the widow of Tony Nicklinson, the "locked-in syndrome" sufferer who died last year, is joining two severely disabled men to sweep aside a prohibition on assisted suicide contained in the Suicide Act, using human rights laws.
The case relies on legal arguments developed by Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the former Labour lord chancellor who chaired an unofficial commission on assisted suicide last year.
A private member’s bill, drawn up by Lord Falconer, to introduce a form of so-called “assisted dying” modelled on a system in place in the US state of Oregon, is expected to be debated by the Lords next spring.
But Lady Butler-Sloss dismissed a package of legal safeguards in it as “doubtful” arguing that they might suit a “small number of strong-minded individuals who are resolved to end their lives” but leave many others at risk.
As the country’s most senior family judge, Lady Butler-Sloss, ruled in 2002 that a woman paralysed from the neck down could have medical treatment withdrawn and die peacefully in accordance with her wishes.
She gave her ruling after visiting the women, known only as “Miss B”, at her bedside, later praising her for her “great courage, strength of will and determination”.
But unlike the case of Miss B, who wanted medical treatment withdrawn, allowing doctors or others to give active assistance to people to end their lives would cross a vital legal boundary, she argued.
“Laws, like nation states, are more secure when their boundaries rest on natural frontiers,” she writes.
“The law that we have rests on just such a frontier. It rests on the principle that we do not involve ourselves in deliberately bringing about the deaths of others.
“Once we start making exceptions based on arbitrary criteria like terminal illness, that frontier becomes just a line in the sand, easily crossed and hard to defend. The law is there to protect us all.
“We tinker with it at our peril.”