Debbie Clarke: the right to decide how it all ends

Debbie Clarke
Debbie Clarke
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I REALLY feel for brave Tony Nicklinson.

The 58-year-old has been on the national news this week because he wants judges to rule that a doctor can lawfully end his life.

Tony has locked-in syndrome which means he is mentally alert but cannot speak or move anything except his head and eyes. He was left paralysed from the neck down after suffering a stroke on a business trip to Greece in June 2005 and cannot take his own life.

He says his existence is miserable and intolerable and wants to die.

His case represents a fundamental challenge to the current law on murder and euthanasia. Currently if any doctor deliberately gives a patient a lethal injection - even if it is to relieve suffering - he or she will face a murder charge.

Tony is attempting to overturn this so that a doctor can assist him without facing prosecution. On Monday a High Court judge granted permission for Tony’s case to proceed.

Such cases are always very difficult with arguments on both sides.

Judges’ ruling

The Ministry of Justice argued that Tony’s case should be struck out and believes it will never have a proper hearing because of the law on murder. It said it was up to Parliament and not the courts to change this. Yet the High Court judge disagreed with this and has given Tony a chance to have his views heard.

In taking a look back at previous cases we can see that judges have intervened in decisions on euthanasia in the past.

In 2000 judges ruled that conjoined twins who were being treated at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London should be separated against the wishes of their parents. This was done knowing that one of them would die.

And in 1993 the House of Lords ruled that Tony Bland, who suffered severe brain damage after being crushed in the Hillsborough Disaster, should be allowed to die through the withdrawal of his feeding tubes. The judges believed it was in his best interests to be allowed to die.

But the law has not always taken a favourable view on right-to-die cases.

British woman Diane Pretty lost her legal battle to allow her husband to help her commit suicide. She died in May 2002. The 43-year-old mother-of-two had her case thrown out in the European Court of Human Rights. abab have a lot of sympathy for such cases and I was moved by the case of Tony Nicklinson.

Life-changing

On the news we saw video footage of him leading a very active life before his stroke. He worked in Dubai as an engineer. For the past six years he has needed constant, round-the-clock care. You have to ask what kind of life is this for anyone?

His mind is active yet his body is paralysed, which is so awful I can’t even contemplate what that must be like.

Victims like Tony must experience so much indignity and mental torment that I can sympathise and even understand why they would want to die.

If Tony does win his fight, it will set a precedent.

It will give patients the right to ask their doctors to take their life - should this be allowed or is it giving permission for murder to be committed without fear of prosecution?

Will it then open the floodgates for many others to come forward and create a society where killing in such cases becomes commonplace and acceptable?

It is a very complex, moral issue and right-to-die cases are always going to be controversial.

There shouldn’t be a blanket ruling on euthanasia. Each case should be heard on its own merits and people like Tony should be allowed to express their arguments in a court of law.

Whether or not he will be given permission to seek help to end his life remains to be seen and I, like many others, will be following his case as the outcome could be life changing for him - as well as many other victims.

*Debbie Clarke writes for the Fife Free Press, Kirkcaldy