Assisted Suicide And The Right To Die: Tony Nicklinson’s Legacy

The passing of Tony Nicklinson made the news headlines last week – he died at home, surrounded by his family, days after he had lost a High Court battle for the right to end his life. The 58 year from Wiltshire had ‘locked-in syndrome’ and could communicate only by blinking.

Mr Nicklinson was left paralysed from the neck down after suffering a stroke in 2005 and he had described his life as a “living nightmare’.

He wanted to allow doctors to end his life without fear of prosecution, and his case went further than any previous challenge to the assisted suicide and euthanasia law in England and Wales. Currently, if anyone had helped him to die, they could have been charged with murder.

Judges at the High Court said his case was “deeply moving” but that to allow his claim “would have consequences far beyond the present cases … and would (involve the court) making a major change in the law.” The subject of assisted suicide and euthanasia is hugely controversial but it’s also something we are hearing more about. The laws surrounding it seem to be a bit unclear however.

Mr Nicklinson’s legal bid differed from previous high profile “right-to-die cases” as his focused on what is known as assisted suicide. However because his paralysis was so severe, he would have had to have been killed by someone else – which is referred to as euthanasia.

Assisted suicide is something we have heard quite a bit of in recent years thanks to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland. Swiss laws mean that assisted suicide is only illegal if it is motivated by self-interest. Up to March 2012, approximately 180 British citizens had travelled to Switzerland from the UK to die at one of Dignitas’s rented apartments in Zurich, usually by drinking a lethal overdose.

In assisted suicide, it’s the person who dies who takes the final action to end his or her life eg drinking a lethal drug although this action relies on the help of another.

In the case of euthanasia, however, another person performs the killing, usually because the person who wants to die is unable to perform the action themselves. This is what Tony Nicklinson wanted the courts to allow – in his case, because he was paralysed from the neck down, it was impossible for him to kill himself and so he needed another person to do it for him. This is what makes it so highly controversial.

Around the world, different countries have alternate views on assisted suicide. Most have defined laws prohibiting the act whilst others have no specific laws but a charge of ‘manslaughter’ can be brought against anyone assisting suicide. A small number, including Switzerland, have laws which allow certain methods of assisted suicide. Only one of the four groups involved will accept non-Swiss citizens, including the aforementioned Dignitas.

Voluntary euthanasia is outlawed virtually around the world although in the Netherlands, whilst it is a criminal offence, doctors are exempted from liability if they report their actions and show they’ve satisfied certain criteria.

In the UK, the law is very clear about euthanasia – it is illegal and has never been sanctioned under any conditions. The British Medical Association does not want the law to be changed saying it doesn’t believe it would be in society’s best interests for doctors to be legally able to end a patient’s life.

But Mr Nicklinson pushed the law further than ever before and a new bill on assisted dying looks likely to be introduced in parliament next year by Lord Falconer. So although he is no longer here to continue the fight himself, Tony Nicklinson’s legacy may well be a change in the law so that one day, others in his position, ‘living a nightmare’ as he described his life, will be able to make the decision when to end their own life.

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