16 Aug 2012

‘Starving myself is preferable to a life like this’


Locked-in sufferer Tony Nicklinson, who lost his right-to-die case at the High Court, tells Channel 4 News that politicians reluctant to change euthanasia laws are “cowards”.

Tony Nicklinson cried on hearing the verdict at his home in Wiltshire. He said his legal team was prepared to “go the whole way” in appealing the judgement.

Three judges unanimously upheld the current law which says it is an offence to end someone’s life through voluntary euthanasia, and said it was up to parliament to make such a significant change in the law.

Mr Nicklinson told Channel 4 News’s Cathy Newman that day-to-day life is becoming increasingly painful.

He said elected MPs and peers are not doing enough to help people like himself. “They [politicians] are cowards, because they are unduly influenced by a minority,” he said, adding that they should “try living my life”.

Mr Nicklinson, 58, has “locked-in” syndrome: he is as mentally as alert as he was before the stroke he suffered in 2005, but he is profoundly disabled.

He communicates by blinking when shown letters but is otherwise completely paralysed from the neck down.

A second victim of the syndrome referred to as “Martin”, 47, who cannot be identified, also lost his challenge to the legal ban on assisted dying.

‘It was hard then to believe things could get any worse for him but they have’
Read Cathy Newman’s account of her meeting with Mr Nicklinson

‘I consider starving myself’

The only way Mr Nicklinson could end his own life legally is by refusing food and water. “I consider starving myself as preferable to a life like this,” he told Channel 4 News, but later added that this was a “choice of last resort.”

Jane Nicklinson, Tony’s wife said that doctors could ease suffering with pain relief and sedation. “But it’s a horrible way to go. It would be horrible for Tony and horrible for us,” she added.

Law change is a ‘matter for parliament’

The three judges said both cases raise constitutional issues and “present society with legal and ethical questions of the most difficult kind”.

But they agreed that it would be wrong for the court to depart from the long-established legal position that “voluntary euthanasia is murder, however understandable the motives may be”, adding that doctors and solicitors who encouraged or assisted another person to commit suicide were “at real risk of prosecution”.

They argued that any changes to the law would need to be made through parliament: “Under our system of government these are matters for parliament to decide, representing society as a whole, after parliamentary scrutiny, and not for the court on the facts of an individual case or cases.”

Jane Nicklinson, Tony’s wife told Channel 4 News they would appeal the decision, but that it would mean months of pain: “It is life and death for him. It means months of months of him in this situation, which he just doesn’t want to be in.”

They could travel to Switzerland where assisted suicide is legal, “but he [Mr Nicklinson] doesn’t see why he should have to go to a foreign country to die in the middle of an industrial estate,” she added.

In the hours before the final judgement, the Nicklinson family launched a petition supporting Tony Nicklinson’s wish to die with dignity, which already has over 1,400 signatures. The #righttodie hashtag started by the family also took hold on Twitter following the judgement.

Watch: Tony Nicklinson’s interview with Channel 4 News in June

‘Life of increasing misery’

Mr Nicklinson’s lawyers had two arguments: they wanted to change the law on murder so that a doctor will not be prosecuted if they help a person incapable of committing suicide to die, as long as the person who chooses death has got permission from a court in advance. They also argued that the current British law on euthanasia and assisted suicide contravenes Mr Nicklinson’s human rights.

During a hearing in June, an email from Mr Nicklinson was read out to judges: “I have wanted my life to end since 2007 so it is not a passing whim.

“Legal arguments are fine but they should not forget that a life is affected by the decision they come to. A decision going against me condemns me to a ‘life’ of increasing misery.

“I have no doubt that the judges have heard it all before, but I simply wanted to get it off my chest.”