Anti-euthanasia campaigners have warned that a disabled man’s legal bid to allow a doctor to end his life without fear of prosecution would have a “catastrophic” effect on the safety of tens of thousands of other disabled people.
Three high court judges this week heard the case of Tony Nicklinson, from Wiltshire, who is seeking to give doctors the power to kill him at a time of his choosing.
Nicklinson has spoken of his wish to end his own life, but because he has “locked-in syndrome” – and is paralysed from the neck-down – would need a doctor or another person to carry out the act.
It is just the latest in a string of legal cases and parliamentary actions aimed at increasing pressure on MPs, peers and the courts to move towards weakening the laws on assisted suicide and euthanasia.
Nicklinson wants the court 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 as murder.
Nicklinson’s lawyers have also argued that criminalising euthanasia is incompatible with his right to respect for his private life under article eight of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Dr Kevin Fitzpatrick, of the disabled people’s organisation Not Dead Yet UK, which campaigns against legalising 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 spent several hours interviewing Nicklinson for a Channel 4 documentary that was aired this week, and said it was clear that he had no understanding of the danger that a legal victory would pose for other disabled people.
And he said that Nicklinson and his wife “absolutely denied” increasing evidence of concerns about the true impact of such laws that has been coming from countries where euthanasia has been legalised, such as the Netherlands.
He said: “The simple truth is that if Tony Nicklinson succeeds in changing the law on murder… for the first time in our legal history people will be legally able to think: this person’s life is not worth living and I can kill them.
“That is catastrophic. It will change forever the relationship between doctors and patients.”
He said: “What Tony Nicklinson will achieve (if he succeeds) as an individual for himself will have an impact on thousands and tens of thousands and maybe even millions of lives.”
He added: “Our deepest wish is that with all our understanding of the despair that Tony Nicklinson faces, the court will find this Rubicon impossible to cross and that parliament will reject any attempt to change the law of murder in this country, because it will mean that the door… will be thrown wide open for attacks on vulnerable people.”
Nicklinson said in a statement released before the start of the hearing: “I am pleased that the case is finally being heard. It has been a long and painful journey for me. This is literally a matter of life and death for me and I cannot emphasise how much it means to me.”
The court’s judgement is not expected before the end of next month (July).
21 June 2012