Tony Nicklinson is 57 and paralysed from the neck down after suffering a stroke. I have blogged on this case in some detail previously so will not review the background again here. Nicklinson’s legal team will be arguing:
2. The existing law of murder, insofar as it denies Nicklinson the chance to be actively killed at his request, is incompatible with Article 8 of the ECHR (European Convention of Human Rights) – dealing with ‘right to respect for private and family life’.
No one can help but be sympathetic to Tony Nicklinson but cases like his are extremely rare and hard cases make bad law. The overwhelming majority of people with severe disability – even with ‘locked-in syndrome’ – do not wish to die but rather want support to live and the longer people have locked-in syndrome then generally the better they learn to cope with it and find meaning, purpose and contentment within the limits of their condition.
The desire to die is not primarily about physical symptoms but about the particular person and their ability to adapt to living with a profound disability. Most people with locked-in syndrome are happy, according to the biggest survey of people with the condition.
Nicklinson has the right to refuse treatment under existing law, and could do so, but what he is seeking to do instead is to give doctors the power to kill in specific circumstances on grounds of ‘necessity’. That would be a very dangerous precedent indeed.
The current law is clear and right and does not need fixing or further weakening. On the one hand the penalties it holds in reserve act as a powerful deterrent to exploitation and abuse by those who might have an interest, financial or otherwise, in the deaths of vulnerable people. On the other hand the law gives judges some discretion to temper justice with mercy when sentencing in hard cases. We should not be meddling with it.
Any further removal of legal protection by creating exceptions for bringing prosecutions would encourage unscrupulous people to take liberties and would place more vulnerable people – those who are elderly, disabled, sick or depressed – under pressure to end their lives so as not impose a burden on family, carers or society.
Even in a free democratic society there are limits to choice. Every law limits choice and stops some people doing what they might desperately wish to do but this is necessary in order to maintain protection for others. No man is an island and this case is about much more than Tony Nicklinson.