The devaluation of disabled people’s lives

Why is it assumed that the only way to help Tony Nicklinson, a man paralysed by a stroke, is to help him die?

Kevin Yuill

Topics Politics

The plight of Tony Nicklinson, a 58-year-old man with ‘locked-in syndrome’, unable to speak and paralysed from the neck down after a stroke in 2005, has attracted huge attention. On Monday, the High Court in London gave him permission to proceed with a full hearing on his case. Nicklinson contends that a ‘common-law defence of necessity’ should be used to protect his loved ones or doctors from prosecution if they helped him end his life.

At first glance, the case seems simple. Here is a man, by all indications intelligent and competent, who has consistently expressed the wish to die. As Nicklinson said, he feels his life is ‘dull, miserable, demeaning, undignified and intolerable’. It is difficult not to sympathise with Nicklinson, who, before being disabled by a stroke, enjoyed an active life, playing rugby and parachuting. As his wife stated, ‘the only way to relieve Tony’s suffering will be to kill him’. Why shouldn’t he be able to go when he chooses?

It is easy to have an emotional response to an item on the news; what is odd about the responses in this case is that many appear to think that a simple emotional response is enough. As one comment beneath an online newspaper story about it read: ‘Litmus test. What would I want to do if I was in his position? I would want to go. Case closed.’

Should our immediate emotional response create changes in the law? It places the emotional response of the observer who knows nothing else about the case in the driving seat. Nicklinson knows this and is pressing for a change in the law by marshalling the feeling (rather than thinking) public behind his cause. Of course, this is an important issue and we should all have opinions about it. But from the torrent of responses to articles on the subject, it appears that such strong emotions preclude rather than provoke thinking on the subject. Case closed. In the past, justice was blind and not swayed by emotional responses. Today, emotional responses seem to lead to changes in the law.

But let’s ask the hard questions. First, there is confusion about what it is Nicklinson is asking for. He seeks not a right for himself but protection for a doctor who helps him take his life by arguing that his right to life under Article 8 of the Human Rights Convention effectively includes a right to ask for his life to be ended humanely at a time of his choosing. This is not assisted suicide, but a plea for euthanasia to be allowed. Moreover, he does not seem to want to be killed now but at some time in the future when he can no longer cope.

As legal observers have pointed out, such a ruling has little chance of progressing, given that granting protection from murder laws for doctors would need to go through parliament. Before we rush to change a law to grant Nicklinson’s wish, we need to ask whether such a change in the law should be based on the consent of the person to be killed. If so, we might excuse the killing of a 24-year-old lovelorn man who expressed suicidal wishes; he might feel his life, too, to be ‘dull, miserable, demeaning, undignified and intolerable’.

We would also have to excuse Armin Miewes, who killed and ate Bernd Jürgen Brandes in 2001 in Rotenburg, Germany. Brandes had answered an advert for willing victims. And if Marshall Applewhite, the Heaven’s Gate cult leader, and his followers asked for assistance in their quest to kill themselves in order to live again in the tail of a comet, on what basis would we prevent a willing doctor from helping? Are we to allow the killing of everyone who consents to die?

Many will protest that giving a depressed 24-year-old a push off of a bridge is a long way from granting the paralysed Nicklinson his wish to die. But the only basis for making such a judgement between two people we do not know is if we agree that because of physical disabilities or conditions, one life is dispensable and the other is not. Those who allow Nicklinson to be killed but disallow Brandes, Applewhite or the depressed 24-year-old have no other basis for making the distinction. Talk of ‘autonomy’ is wrong if we are making such a distinction; those who agree with Nicklinson and not the others clearly value disabled lives (or, with assisted suicide, elderly lives) less than other lives. No wonder disability-rights groups like Not Dead Yet are disturbed by the ramifications of cases like Nicklinson’s. Why is it that the only way to help him would be to kill him and not the 24-year-old?

Groups like Dignity in Dying, who rely on simple, emotional responses to cases like Nicklinson’s but must give legal expression to this emotionalism, found Nicklinson’s case difficult. Nicklinson, for them, does not fit the bill. Sarah Wootton, chief executive of Dignity in Dying, said her organisation would ‘would like to see a law which allows terminally ill, mentally competent adults the choice of an assisted death’ but ‘[t]his law would not apply to Mr Nicklinson, as he is severely disabled but not terminally ill’. But doesn’t this give the lie to the idea that dignity (Nicklinson makes a convincing case that his physical care involves little dignity) or suffering (few doubt his suffering is real) are the main reason for legalised assisted dying? It is interesting that the overwhelming 83 per cent of the public supporting Nicklinson’s request seems not to sway Dignity in Dying, despite their use of public support as a key argument in favour of legalising assisted suicide.

It is counterintuitive but no doubt true that the cool rationality ascribed to supporters of assisted suicide actually belongs less to them than to those questioning the need for a change in the law. The responses to the sad case of Tony Nicklinson expose the fact that most of the support for changing the law on assisted suicide or on murder is as shallow as it is broad and does not stand up to questioning. Neither a change in the murder laws, as demanded by Nicklinson’s supporters, nor a change in the law to allow assisted suicides in more limited circumstances is an appropriate response to our sympathies with particularly tragic cases.

Kevin Yuill teaches American studies at the University of Sunderland in England, and is author of Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action. Read a review of the book here, or buy it from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA).

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Topics Politics


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