Tony Nicklinson has been cleared to take his case to the High Court, which will at least get the subject matter heard and will guarantee further public debate. His biggest legal hurdle is that his condition means he is incapable of being assisted to die (which is also illegal in the UK); he will have to rely on someone to kill him – something that would then be considered as murder for the law as it currently stands.
I don’t pretend for one moment to be adequately experienced enough or qualified to debate the law, medical ethics or for that matter religion but I have reflected on assisted death before.
Last year Sir Terry Pratchett (a truly brilliant author in my opinion) presented a poignant documentary on assisted suicide. He suffers with early onset Alzheimer’s which is untreatable, debilitating and progressive and is very open, honest and vocal about his desire to determine the nature and timing of his own death. Sir Terry’s biggest concerns are loss of faculties versus the timing of the loss – he doesn’t want to go too early but if he leaves it too late: he’ll not be considered competent to make the decision at all.
Sir Terry accompanied a gentleman called Peter Smedley to Dignitas in Switzerland to share the last days of his life with him and his wife. Peter Smedley was an amazing character; he was bright educated, successful, determined and completely rational in his decision making and actions. Unfortunately he was suffering from motor neurone disease and it had progressed significantly; as a result, Peter was determined to end his life with dignity and not become an impossible burden on his wife. Watching him making his choice, sign his paperwork and then follow through on his decision was extremely moving and I for one felt he was brave, courageous and inspiring.
The media debate that followed in the aftermath of the programme was frenzied and polarised. My view at the time was simple and it was that people should have the right to make these decisions for themselves and that the law needed to find a way to accommodate them! In my opinion it just felt all wrong that Peter had to leave his home/wider family and fund the trip to Switzerland in order to die on a Swiss industrial estate. Terry Pratchett has stated that he wants to die at home in his own garden and who on earth is entitled to challenge him for that?
I completely understand that changing the law is far from easy and that the vulnerable need protecting but if there aren’t some compromises then individuals either need to commit suicide, which isn’t easy for them; be assisted and find that their supporters are subject to legal action or fund an expensive trip to Switzerland.
Given the serious nature of this subject, I am keen that neither I, nor this article, appear crass. I appreciate that when people make the decision to commit suicide they are often not thinking in a logical or normal way but bear with me for a moment. If I was to kill myself, I’d want to do it in such a way as to not make some God awful mess for someone else to clean up or leave others traumatised that had to find and deal with my dead body. It would be far better to involve my loved ones in my decision making process and say all the goodbyes properly and then make an exit with an appropriate concoction so that to all intents and purposes I’d just nodded off.
If the law in the UK did get changed then inevitably there would be a significant bureaucratic process prior to individual getting approval to die (that process would undoubtedly involve counselling and psychological and competency assessments etc.). It’s possible that kind of process might even save the lives of some of those who might have just resorted to something rash otherwise.
I have known two people who committed suicide (both bloody) and I have also known four people who have died by wasting away through cancer. For those that couldn’t go on and for those whose bodies just gave up on them, I can’t help but think that the option to administer their own exits in a less painful and upsetting way for everyone concerned could have been important to them. For those that committed suicide, even if they went through a review process and still made the same decision, their families would have at least had some opportunity to prepare themselves for their losses. Whilst aggressive illnesses are horrible, at least those suffering know they have a limited amount of time left to say their goodbyes, make their peace and get their affairs in order.
I hope that Tony Nicklinson’s efforts pay dividends because he is a brave man not only to challenge the law of the land but also to allow the media to intrude into his difficult life and broadcast details of it to the world. Bizarrely, if he’s successful, it will be the death of him but at least he’d go out on a high and would have left his mark on history. Tony Nicklinson – you have my respect!
With regards to the law, it should allow adults to make grown up decisions. This is simplistic I know but, it’s not against the law to smoke or join the armed forces but both those things could be the death of you. Think of a soldier, he/she can make the decision to join up and get shot at (or shoot and kill others) in Afghanistan for example but if he/she gets horribly wounded he/she is not entitled to get help to end their own life if they so choose! That just doesn’t feel right! What do you think?