The conviction for assisting suicide did not violate the Convention

In the case of Lings v. Denmark (application no. 15136/20, 12.04.2022) the European Court of Human Rights held, unanimously, that there had been no violation of Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The applicant is a doctor and the founder of a pro-assisted-suicide organisation, Physicians in Favour of Euthanasia.  Under this umbrella, he produced a guide called “Medicines suited to suicide”, which he published on the Internet, legally under Danish law. It was a guide as to how to undertake suicide, including detailed descriptions of the different medicines, their required doses, physical methods, and so forth. The case concerned his conviction on two counts of assisted suicide, and one count of attempted assisted suicide. He asserted that he had just been disseminating information about suicide.

The parties did not dispute that the applicant’s conviction had been an interference with his free – expression rights. The Court proceeded on that basis. It also found that it had been prescribed by law (Article 240 of the Criminal Code). It noted that assisted suicide had been illegal in Denmark since 1930, and that the relevant law provided that a specific act of assistance to commit suicide had to have taken place for conviction.

However, the Court was not called on to determine whether the criminalisation of assisted suicide was justified, only whether it was “necessary in a democratic society” in this case. It noted in that regard that the authorities have a duty to protect vulnerable members of society. The Court emphasised that no right to assisted suicide existed under the Convention. The Court took note of the Supreme Court’s final conclusions and saw no reason to disagree with them, in particular that Mr Lings’ advice, although based on his guide to suicide, had pushed one of the individuals towards suicide. Although publication of the guide had been legal, the case had rested on the specific advice given to individuals. It held that neither the conviction nor the sentence had been excessive in this case. 

Overall, the domestic courts’ reasons for taking the decision they did – protection of health and morals and the rights of others – had been legitimate, and they had acted within the wide discretion (“margin of appreciation”) afforded to the authorities in this particular case.

References from the official website of the European Court of Human Rights