Students Staff

23 April 2015

Whose life is it anyway? The “Right to Die” debate could define the next Parliament

A major conference organised by the Essex Autonomy Project will today (Thursday 23 April) investigate the legal and ethical challenges raised by an issue which could dominate the political agenda no matter what the outcome of the General Election - the right to die.

The event is part of the University of Essex's 50th anniversary events and is part of a week of activities marking its contribution to vital debates around autonomy.

Speakers include Paul Bowen QC who represented right to die campaigner and ‘Locked-in syndrome’ sufferer Tony Nicklinson, legal expert Professor Sabine Michalowski and Dr Kate Powis from St Helena Hospice.

Director of the Essex Autonomy Project, Professor Wayne Martin, who will also speak at the event, said: “There are some human rights issues that simmer for a long time in society and then quite quickly come to a boil. We have seen that in recent years with same-sex marriage. We may well be on the verge of a similar step-change with regard to autonomy at the end of life. Now is the time to think through the safeguards that would need to be put in place if Parliament moves to enact some kind of right-to-die provision.

“When our research team started working on these issues five years ago, people in government were not keen to talk about assisted dying. Both ethically and politically, it is a difficult topic. But now the atmosphere is changing. Our population is ageing, and medical science helps us survive the diseases that even twenty years ago would have killed. So more and more people have had direct experience in caring for loved ones whose lives have extended far beyond the point where there is any real quality of life to enjoy. People are ready to explore some kind of legal arrangement to avoid that outcome for themselves.”

At the event Mr Bowen and Professor Michalowski will discuss the UK’s current position on assisted suicide and the right to die and why they believe it needs to change.

Dr Powis and Professor Martin will discuss other aspects of autonomy and end of life care. Dr Powis will talk about the challenges of respecting a patient’s autonomy in a palliative care setting when dementia might be a complicating factor.

In his talk Professor Martin will discuss legal issues surrounding of some the most vexed and controversial recent cases where patients lacking in decision-making capacity for taking decisions about their treatment nonetheless still express a strong preference for the cessation of life-extending medical care.

He will review the best-interests decision-making framework established by the Mental Capacity Act (2005) and focus on three cases in which the Court of Protection had to determine whether continued medical treatment was in the best interests of patients suffering from Severe and Enduring Anorexia Nervosa.

He will argue the adjudication of these challenging cases has tested the limits of the MCA and will explain how the landmark UK Supreme Court ruling in James v Aintree University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (2013) is now reshaping judicial practice.

The Essex Autonomy Project is an interdisciplinary team of philosophers and legal experts helping and supporting policymakers, care workers, medical practitioners and legal professionals.

The team has been investigating the ideal of self-determination across a number of fields including health care, care for the elderly, social care and psychiatric care. They have particularly focused on the impact of the Mental Capacity Act.

...more news releases