Tony Nicklinson and the mysterious ‘M’ cannot have their miserable lives ended by medical intervention. This was the ruling given the other day by the High Court.  In Tony’s case, the question posed was whether a doctor could be prosecuted for murder if he administered a lethal injection, knowing that this was the oft repeated wish of Tony and his long suffering wife.

The judge ruled on the law as he found it, and that’s what judges are supposed to do.  Regardless of where his sympathies lay, and he could not have been deaf to Tony’s plight, it would amount to legalised murder and, if condoned, could open a Pandora’s box.  A somewhat simplistic approach, but understandable nonetheless.

In the recent past, the Courts have come close to interfering with the ‘human rights’ of individuals, using as their justification the Mantra that “each case must be decided on its own particular facts”.  Male circumcision was one, much to the consternation of the Jewish community, where the ‘snip’ without informed consent could be a breach of the infant’s human rights, and the sterilisation of a mentally defective woman was another.

Not so long ago, the Court of Appeal had to consider the thorny question of assisted suicide against the background of Dignitas, the Swiss clinic, where those wishing to end their lives can do so with dignity, surrounded by their loved ones. The presence of their loved ones gave rise to a possible charge and prosecution for assisting the suicide, so the Court, instead of determining the issue themselves, passed the buck to the Director of Public Prosecutions.  He, in turn, invoked the Mantra that each case must be decided on its own particular facts, and nobody, least of all the Court of Appeal, was any the wiser.

It is strange but true that until the Suicide Act 1961, it was a criminal offence to commit suicide.  Quite how you prosecute a corpse has never been satisfactorily explained, but this harks back to the days when the Catholic Church reigned supreme, and when suicide was a mortal sin, depriving the sinner of the chance to meet St. Peter at the pearly gates and casting him forever into the depths of hell and all that.

Whilst it may be right for the judge in the Nicklinson case to pass the buck to the government, in the unlikely event they may wish to amend the law of murder, I can see no reason why each case cannot be decided on its own particular facts. The only reason why Nicklinson is festering here instead of ending his life in Switzerland is that he is totally incapacitated except for his eyelids.  These are his sole means of communication, and as I understand it, effective enough to tell anybody who cares to listen that he wants to die.

One possible solution to this impasse is a Judicial Review, not in the accepted legal sense, but similar to an Inquiry, where all interested parties are represented, and if the judge, or judges, conclude that there is no prospect of recovery, and that Nicklinson, as a man of sound mind,  is able to convey his wish to die, it cannot be morally right to deny him his wish and keep him alive and imprisoned in a useless body.

I hope to God that if I find myself in a similar position, somebody will listen to me, respect my wishes, and allow me to die with dignity.  After all, according to my faith, I will go to a far better place, and I will take my chances with St. Peter.

Postscript: On the 22nd August 2012, six days after the High Court condemned him to live, Tony Nicklinson defied the judges, the doctors, and the pro-life opponents who prolonged his suffering, and died despite them all.


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.