Humanists UK is sad to mark the loss of its longstanding member and assisted dying campaigner Noel Conway, who has died aged 71 after removing his ventilator. Noel suffered from Motor Neurone Disease (MND) and was dependent upon a ventilator to breathe for 23 hours a day. In 2018 he brought an ultimately unsuccessful challenge against the law on assisted dying.
Humanists UK intervened in support of Noel’s case, which he brought with the help of Dignity in Dying. It submitted evidence from humanist philosophers Simon Blackburn and John Harris. Both filed witness statements examining the underlying ethics of assisted dying, reflecting Humanists UK’s unique interdisciplinary expertise at the intersection of medical ethics, moral philosophy, and the law. Humanists UK also filed evidence showing widespread support for a change in the law from MND sufferers. However, the Court of Appeal refused his case. It concluded that Noel’s condition did not require a change in the law, because he was already able to hasten his death by removing his ventilator.
Noel subsequently applied for permission to the Supreme Court. He argued that the implications of removing his ventilator were uncertain and risked the sensation of drowning. However, in a split decision the Court concluded that there was not a strong enough prospect of Noel’s case succeeding to proceed to a full hearing.
In a statement Noel requested to be released upon his death, the former teacher from Shrewsbury said:
‘When you read this I will be dead. Not because I have suffered a tragic accident or died from a long-standing or painful disease. No, it will be because I have made a conscious and deliberate effort to end my own life. I suffer from MND and was diagnosed over six years ago knowing that at some stage I would reach a point when my muscles would have deteriorated to such an extent that I could not function effectively. Over the past two months it has become increasingly evident to me that the balance of fulfillment in life, or if you like, my quality of life, has dipped into the negative. My voice has depleted to the extent that many people cannot now tell what I say and my eyesight recently deteriorated. I am already paralegic and I cannot use my hands or fingers but I am aware that my neck muscles are weakening as are my mouth and speech muscles. I recognise that the time has come to take the decision now to do something about this.
‘Under UK law it is perfectly legitimate to remove a ventilator from someone like me. This is not something I would have chosen but I feel that I have no alternative to ending my life without pain and suffering and without compromising others. However, my heart goes out to all those people with terminal cancers and other horrible diseases which makes their lives execrable because they can’t find any release from their terrible suffering. I have spent the last several years campaigning to have the law changed. The topic has been aired nationally and is much more prominent now than it ever was. I am glad that Parliament is continuing to discuss it and investigate possibilities of an assisted dying law in line with many other countries over the last few years. It can only be a question of time before assisted dying will be approved in the UK.’
Responding to Noel’s death, Humanists UK’s Chief Executive Andrew Copson said:
‘We are deeply saddened by the death of our member Noel Conway. Noel was a warm, kind, and generous man, whose fight for the right to die inspired many people and was a catalyst for action across the UK. Nobody should be forced to end their life while physically suffering, or facing the fear of a slow and protracted death.
‘Noel shined a light upon the barbaric nature of our current law on assisted dying. By doing so, Noel’s bravery should serve as a powerful reminder to politicians that we should be past the point of turning a blind eye to this issue. We offer our deepest condolences to his friends and family.’
For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.
Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.