They have Tony Nicklinson on a technicality. At present, the difference between a lawful suicide and a killing is who delivers that final, irreversible push from the land of malady to no man’s land. A doctor would have to give Tony Nicklinson his final push to commit a rational consensual suicide; but that’s illegal. He hasn’t the physical capacity to end it himself because of his condition, except via starvation – a long process perhaps more painful than death or the locked-in syndrome brought about by a stroke that is his daily torturer.
Any empathetic person can understand why Tony wants to end his life, or at least have the option rather than endure a future “[condemned] to a ‘life’ of increasing misery.” He cannot walk or talk, but he can cry. To communicate, a computer or assistant patiently compiles each letter in a frustrating process involving an alphabet board and an eyelid twitch. This is his only form of expression. (Although, Twitter has allowed Tony to communicate with over 40,000 people.) His body works like a burnt-out engine; there are no automatic movements – bar some facial muscles – but sometimes manual cranking will produce results. For example, an assistant must tap the back of Tony’s tongue with a spoon to induce a swallow. The present incarnation of Tony distressingly contrasts with the Tony before the debilitating stroke he suffered in 2005. He was a husband, father of two, a travelling civil engineer with a sharp humour and enjoyed rugby among other sports. This already reads like the first draft of an especially flattering obituary.
Nevertheless, the stalwart mind of Tony Nicklinson continues to be just that. He has recently attempted to redefine UK law through a High Court case, a confrontation with the authorities that displays his admirably non-ideological approach. He does not look to change the law but instead looks to reinterpret its current standing by evoking “the common law defence of necessity.” This would allow a doctor to help shorten his life while keeping that doctor a free man. Although such a reinterpretation seems valid, it would trespass the forbidden territory of euthanasia.
The crux of the argument espoused by the opposition to legalising euthanasia, i.e. the “Not Dead Yet” campaign, is that the act of suicide is private and as such should involve no other individuals. Their logic concludes that assisted suicide and killing are synonymous if that final push is delivered by anyone other than the person who will die. Their logic excludes one major component: choice.
Among the defenders of the present law is a columnist for The Independent, Christina Patterson, who said: “And if the law that makes you sad makes most people safer then maybe your sadness … is the price we all have to pay.” Just how preventing assisted suicide makes other people “safer” remains curiously unexplained and a non sequitur. It feeds into the “slippery slope” school of thought that once the authorities legalise something controversial, e.g. abortion, it will be used as a quick fix for difficult moral conundrums.
Who says this has to be the case? Although I abhor the death penalty, when used (not in Britain), it is mostly used with extreme caution and as an ultimate punishment. Give western mankind its credit: when the educated among us do deal with death, we understand that there is no counter-remedy. Euthanasia, too, would only be used only with absolute seriousness.
Kelvin Fitzpatrick, a disability rights campaigner, uses similar non sequiturs. He says that allowing euthanasia for the seriously infirm could lead to a covert decision concluding that society will consider the disabled a burden or that, in some way, a disabled life is worth less. Not so! We are not all like Martin Amis, who recently recommended euthanasia as a solution to mass ageing problems brought about by the baby boom generation. Oh dear.
I digress. Those against euthanasia reform still talk as though legalising the practice is essentially allowing clinical killings. They factor out “choice” as instrumental in the death. Legalisation would not allow the specialists of our NHS a mandate to kill, but would instead insist that an outside body is necessary to remedy the cruellest existences – helping cure maladies is a doctor’s job, after all.
Hitherto, as no doctor would give morphine to ease a headache, no doctor would allow euthanasia where one can see hope. Likewise, as a patient can reject medication, a patient would be able to reject the ultimate remedy to dire circumstances. (Involuntary euthanasia is essentially murder if there is chance of recovery – unless a particular situation is preempted.)
While watching Terry Pratchett’s documentary on euthanasia last year, I found the process made my head faint and my skin clammy as I was rocked by recorded and artificial death. But despite many people’s aversion to the mechanics behind euthanasia (or their more understandable dislike of death in general), one should be accepting of another’s right to choose and think for themselves; half of which Tony Nicklinson does more soundly than those, such as Christina Patterson, who show a cold piety towards the dated laws prohibiting acts of compassionate assisted suicide. Likewise, the irony of Kelvin Fitzpatrick’s position is that he claims to stand for disability rights – where is Tony Nicklinson’s right to death? Perhaps the neuroscientist Sam Harris is correct in saying that the staunch but sincere opposition to euthanasia just cannot comprehend that sometimes living can be worse than death.