The debate on mercy killing and assisted suicide continues unabated as the law struggles to find a way through the ethical morass. The two terms and not synonymous. Mercy killing requires intervention by a third party, almost always a doctor, where the sufferer is incapable of ending his life unaided. Assisted suicide suggests the contrary, where the sufferer ends his own life unaided, although with the assistance of a third party, almost always a close relative or family friend. This is not a distinction without a difference, but a fundamental difference, and one given prominence in the tragic case of Tony Nicklinson. He has “locked in” syndrome, cannot move, and can only communicate by blinking his eyes. He wants to die, but as the law stands, he has no right to do so.
The debate on assisted suicide has moved on since Debbie Purdy’s case and the helpful ‘clarification’ by the Director of Public Prosecutions. This ‘clarification’ suggests that relatives and friends of sufferers who take their own lives are unlikely to be prosecuted where it can be clearly shown that they were acting out of compassion and not in anticipation of an expected inheritance.
Mercy killing is far from resolved, and by all accounts, a proposed Bill to address this issue will fail to do so. It will fail to help Tony Nicklinson, not simply because he is incapable of taking the necessary physical steps to end his own life, but also because he fails to meet the criteria. These are that he has a terminal illness with a prognosis of only 12 months to live, and he must be able to take the lethal medication himself. The ability to take the lethal dose unaided also applies to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland.
Everybody with an opinion wants to ventilate it. There is the Commission on Assisted Dying, the Care not Killing and the Right to Die lobbies, to name but three of the most vociferous, but surely to God it must be first and foremost the sufferer and his family and friends who should have the right to decide.
If the sufferer, like Tony Nicklinson, can communicate his wish to die, then in the name of humanity, let him die. The idea that the doctor administering the lethal dose should be paraded in court and accused of murder is abhorrent to all right minded people in a civilised society.
By all means have safeguards and hoops to jump through to protect the interests of the sufferer, but once surmounted to the satisfaction of right minded people, and not lawyers or interest groups or lobbyists, let the suffering end.
Postscript John Simpson, the distinguished World Affairs Editor of the BBC, is presenting a programme on BBC1 this coming Wednesday at 9pm, entitled “When I Get Older”. It deals with many of the issues discussed in this article, and well worth tuning in.