Disabled activists have again been forced to warn of the “catastrophic” consequences of a weakening in the laws on euthanasia and assisted suicide, after the latest “right to die” high court ruling.
Tony Nicklinson, from Wiltshire, this week won the right to have his bid for legalised euthanasia examined in depth by the high court, after his lawyers defeated a government attempt to have the case thrown out.
Nicklinson has spoken of his wish to end his own life at some stage in the future, but because he has “locked-in syndrome” – a condition in which he is almost completely paralysed – he says he would need a doctor to kill him.
He wants the courts to declare that it would be legal – on the common law grounds of “necessity” – for a doctor to kill him at a time of his choosing, if sanctioned by the courts in advance. At present, such an act would be seen by the courts as murder.
Nicklinson’s lawyers are also arguing that criminalising euthanasia is incompatible with his right to respect for his private life under article eight of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Mr Justice Charles ruled this week that Nicklinson’s case could be heard in full by the high court.
Dr Kevin Fitzpatrick, of the disabled people’s organisation Not Dead Yet UK, which campaigns against weakening the law on euthanasia and assisted suicide, expressed sympathy with Nicklinson’s situation, but said the legal changes he was seeking would be a “catastrophe” for other disabled people.
He said: “The biggest problem is that these cases are about individual people, but a change in the law would be for everybody. The problem is what comes behind that change. That is where the danger is.”
Mike Smith, a trustee of Disability Rights UK and a commissioner with the Equality and Human Rights Commission – but speaking in a personal capacity – said: “It is complex, but it does not yet seem clear to me that the rights of an individual outweigh the rights to a whole group of people to be protected from potential group harm.”
Smith said he was also worried about the “wider impact” that cases such as Nicklinson’s have on public perceptions of disabled people, sending the message that “disabled people’s lives are miserable”, particularly in a time of austerity where “there are limited resources and people are not getting the support they need to live equal lives”.
In a statement to the court, Nicklinson has said that he has “no privacy or dignity left” and was “fed up” with his life, and added: “I am asking for my right to choose when and how to die to be respected.”
Nicklinson said in a written statement after the ruling: “This is good news indeed. I am delighted that we can now move on to discuss the pertinent issues properly in a dispassionate court of law instead of the emotionally charged glare of the media.”
A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice, which is opposing his claim, said: “We cannot comment on ongoing legal proceedings.”
But he said the government believed that any change to the law “in this emotive and contentious area is an issue of individual conscience and a matter for parliament to decide rather than government policy”.
15 March 2012