Tony Nicklinson, a paralysed man who is campaigning for a doctor to be allowed to lawfully end his life, is having his case heard at the High Court this week. As a result of a stroke in 2005, he suffers from ‘locked-in syndrome’, which means that he is of sound mind, but is paralysed from the neck down and is unable to speak. Mr Nicklinson wants the judges presiding over his case to rule that, if he makes the informed decision to end his life, a doctor will be immune from prosecution if they help him to do so. The British Humanist Association (BHA) supports Mr Nicklinson’s legal case, and in addition to this, would also like to see legislation in Parliament to legalise assisted dying.
As the law stands at the moment, helping someone to end their life constitutes murder, which carries a sentence of life imprisonment. In his legal case, Mr Nicklinson is seeking several changes which would sit alongside the existing laws. Firstly, he is asking that the common law defence of necessity should be granted to doctors who help people to end their lives. This means that it would not be unlawful for a doctor to end a patient’s life, on condition that an order is sought from the courts, that a judge is satisfied that the patient’s medical condition involves ‘unbearable suffering’, that the patient has given a ‘a voluntary, clear, settled and informed wish to end his own life’, and that there are no other means of relieving the patient’s suffering.
Secondly, Mr Nicklinson is seeking a declaration that the current law regarding murder and assisted suicide is incompatible with the right to respect for private life, which is guaranteed under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998. However, Mr Nicklinson’s request to seek a third declaration, that the law fails to regulate the practice of euthanasia (both voluntary and involuntary), and that this is in breach of Article 2 of the Human Rights Act, was rejected in March, when Mr Nicklinson first won the right for his case to be heard. The Ministry of Justice is defending the case, arguing that changing the law is the responsibility of Parliament, not that of judges, and that Mr Nicklinson’s human rights are not being infringed by the current laws. Mr Nicklinson accepts that some of the changes he is seeking can only be introduced by Parliament, but in the continued absence of legislation on the issue, he argues that he is entitled to ‘remedy’ from the court. The judges are expected to reach a decision in July.
Pavan Dhaliwal, BHA Head of Public Affairs, commented that ‘we support Tony Nicklinson’s legal case to establish the right to have a doctor lawfully end his life. Mentally competent adults should be able to make decisions about their lives, as long as they do not result in harm to others. In cases where a patient is suffering incurably, is permanently incapacitated, and has made a clear and informed decision to end their life but is unable to do so independently, the law should allow a doctor to intervene. We also believe that there is an urgent need for Parliament to legislate on the matter, and to introduce a law which legalises assisted dying while also imposing safeguards to protect the vulnerable.’
For further comment or information contact Pavan Dhaliwal, Head of Public Affairs at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 0773 843 5059.
Recent media coverage of Tony Nicklinson’s legal case:
The Channel 4 Dispatches programme:
Tony Nicklinson’s Twitter page:
Previous BHA News articles on the issue of assisted dying:
The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of ethically concerned, non-religious people in the UK. It is the largest organisation in the UK campaigning for an end to religious privilege and to discrimination based on religion or belief, and for a secular state.