The 50-year-old, identified only as “AM” or “Martin”, is almost totally paralysed by a stroke, unable to speak and wants to have the option of ending his life.
He is asking the High Court in London to rule that the General Medical Council’s guidance on assisted suicide unreasonably prevents doctors from actively assisting patients whose “lives are in ruins” and want to die.
The council is opposing Martin’s application for judicial review, arguing it is an attempt to impose upon it “a positive obligation to tell doctors that they can, with impunity, conduct themselves in a manner which is, or might be, a breach of the criminal law”.
Two judges heard that a previous attempt by Martin to commit suicide by stopping eating and drinking failed “in distressing circumstances”. He is now considering using the services of the Dignitas clinic in Zurich, which helps terminally ill patients end their life.
In the last three years, about 30 UK residents have had an “accompanied suicide” at Dignitas.
The court was told that, to access Dignitas services, Martin needs a doctor’s medical report covering his medical history, including diagnosis, prognosis and treatment. However, he cannot obtain the vital report because of the council’s guidance. To consider other end-of-life options, Martin would also need medical advice.
The council’s guidance states when patients raise the issue of assisted suicide, or ask for information that might encourage or assist them to end their lives, doctors should be prepared to listen and discuss the reasons — but must not actively “encourage or assist” as this would breach the Suicide Act 1961, and could lead to disciplinary proceedings.
Philip Havers QC, appearing for Martin, asked Justice Elias and Mr Justice Collins to rule against the guidance.
Mr Havers argued the council should take the more “compassionate approach” taken by the DPP. While assistance with suicide was still formally unlawful, the DPP policy meant that people providing assistance were prosecuted only exceptionally, he argued.
The Crown Prosecution Service website revealed that, of 110 cases referred to it between April 2009-April 2014 and recorded as assisted suicide or euthanasia, only one had been successfully prosecuted in October 2013.
Mr Havers told the judges: “We say the DPP’s policy is the starting point and the General Medical Council has failed to explain why it needs to take a different approach in order to protect the public.
Jenni Richards QC, for the council urged the judges to dismiss Martin’s challenge.