Tony Nicklinson: right-to-die or right-to-murder?

After what seemed like a very long wait the decision on Tony Nicklinson’s right-to-die case came out yesterday with the three High Court judges unanimously upholding the current law which says it is an offence to end someone’s life through voluntary euthanasia.  In their ruling, they went on to say that only parliament could make such a significant change in the law and that it was not the job of the legal system to do this on such a fundamental matter.  The implication is therefore that any appeal by Mr Nicklinson’s team is very likely to fail without the law being rewritten, but as always in these situations we shall have to wait and see where this case goes next.

I’ve twice written posts on Tony Nicklinson here and here, so rather than going through the moral and ethical implications all over again, I suggest you have a read of them if you want to understand my thinking on the subject.

Having watched Channel 4 News’ coverage of the story and interview with Mr Nicklinson, it is hard not to be moved by his desperate situation.  It’s clear that he is very unhappy with his life and he was visually upset when he heard the court’s ruling.  At one level it feels incredibly hard-hearted not to want him to be allowed to finish his life in the manner that he desires.  This though, is the biggest danger in Mr Nicklinson’s case.

A lot of the press coverage has focused on the state of Tony Nicklinson’s life and how incredibly difficult life is for him.  It produces an emotional response that says ‘we’ve got to do something to help him’.  But what I haven’t seen as much of, especially in the tabloids, is analysis of what the likely outcomes would be if the court ruling had gone the other way.  We mustn’t lose sight of the fact that the judges weren’t looking at Tony Nicklinson’s personal situation, but rather the implications that his desire to have someone else finish his life would have on the laws that govern all of our lives.

Many of those who have disagreed with the ruling seem to have forgotten that if he had won someone would have to kill him.  The case went far beyond right to die.  It was right to murder.  I wouldn’t want to be the person who had that responsibility and I doubt that the vast majority of doctors would either.  It’s not surprising then that the British Medical Association (BMA) agreed with the outcome.

Dr Tony Calland from the BMA’s medical ethics committee said, “The BMA does not believe that it would be in society’s best interests for doctors to be able to legally end a patient’s life.  The BMA is opposed to the legalisation of assisted dying and we are not lobbying for any change in the law in the UK”.

As I’ve looked at the articles written so far on this case, I’m yet to find one from someone writing as a professional whom this would affect who agrees that Mr Nicklinson should be given what he is asking for.  Even the former lord chancellor Lord Falconer who is planning a private member’s bill for the Lords in January to legalise assisted suicide believes Tony Nicklinson’s wishes go far beyond what should be legally acceptable.

The old phrase ‘Hard cases make bad law’ very much applies here.  Rev Dr Brendan McCarthy who is the National Adviser on medical ethics and health and social care policy to the Church of England’s Archbishops’ Council begins to argue in his Telegraph article why a change in the law would be bad news for many vulnerable people.  He writes:

‘A change in the law or in its interpretation would also lend unintended weight to the argument that a person’s value is measured in terms of their   ‘usefulness’.  Already, many people speak loosely of others living useless or futile lives, as if a person’s worth can be gauged on the basis of his or her activity.’

Tony Nicklinson’s daughter Lauren summed everything up well when she said “There’s no happy ending”.  His situation is desperate, but he is not the only one with a horrendous disability.  I sometimes wonder how I would cope in his position.  I have no way of knowing.  I would hope that my faith would give me strength and a desire to live that Tony Nicklinson finds so difficult to grasp, but who knows?  What I do know is that I have read many stories about people who have had plenty of reason to despair of their lives and terrible situations, yet because of their relationship with God, they have a thankfulness for and love of life that rationally they should never be expected to have.

When we place our lives in God’s hands we can find a hope that  goes beyond human understanding, but apart from God life so easily can become futile when things become difficult.  The extremes of Tony Nicklinson’s life bring these two stark contrasts clearly into view.  If we care as society about these issues, his lack of hope should make us look harder to find a meaning to life rather than seeking an outcome that cheapens it.

Categories: Mercy, Morals & ethics, The law & legal issues

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