Should the law be changed to give us the legal right to choose when and how we die?
“Goodbye world, the time has come. I had some fun.”
The last words of Tony Nicklinson, tweeted by his family after his death last Wednesday, belied the battle he had fought for his life to end.
Mr Nicklinson, had described the years since being paralysed by stroke in 2005 as a “living nightmare”.
Tony’s brain had been so severely damaged, he was left paralysed from the neck down, a condition known as Locked-In Syndrome.
For years he had fought for the right to legally end his life. Just the week before his death from pneumonia, having refused medication and nutrition, Tony, 58, from Wiltshire, lost his High Court battle for the assurance that anyone who helped him to die would not face a charge of murder.
His tears of anger and anguish, relayed around the world via TV cameras. ignited fresh debate on one of society’s most controversial subjects; the right to die as we choose.
The fight goes on, though; a man with Locked-In Syndrome, known only as Martin, who contested his case at the same time as Mr Nicklinson, has announced he will be appealing against the High Court decision.
Labour peer Lord Joffe, a right-to-die campaigner, believes Tony Nicklinson’s “incredible courage” will eventually lead to a change in the law and relieve people from “terrible suffering”.
The British Medical Association does not want the law changed. It fears such a law could create dangerous precedents which could put vulnerable members of society at risk.
The Star asked two leading Sheffield figures to give their opposing views...
Roman Catholic Bishop of Hallam, the Rt Rev John Rawsthorne, above.
Born in Liverpool, Bishop John, 76, was ordained bishop in St Marie’s Cathedral, Sheffield, in 1997.
Bishop John is a keen walker and takes part in a sponsored walk every year to raise money to support St. Wilfrid’s, Sheffield’s Drop-in Day Centre for the homeless and disadvantaged.
“It would have been impossible to witness Tony Nicklinson’s distress and passion after the High Court decision and not to have been moved to deep compassion for him.
It is never easy, indeed it can seem very hard-hearted, to discuss such a crucially important matter as the right to an assisted death at a time when the issue has been personalised through the real life of a particular person. But Tony very deliberately brought his case to the attention of the nation through the media.
The fact he died so shortly after the court’s decision has a particular sadness of its own, even if for Tony it may have been a great relief.
All the Christian churches oppose euthanasia in any form and, although they would never be judgemental about a particular case, the law itself would be and they are opposed to any change in that law. Parliament has rejected proposals for changing the law in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2009 and in March of this year
As Christians, we support all the reasons for which other people oppose euthanasia, and we have our own foundational reasons.
For the Christian, human life is a gift from God, to be cherished and respected. In the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ we recognise that life is not ours to dispose of as we please.
We believe that Christ’s commandment ‘Love one another as I have loved you’ makes everybody a neighbour, worthy of our charity and care.
And we truly believe in life after death. The Roman Catholic funeral liturgy says: ‘Lord, for your faithful people life is changed not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death, we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven’.
This is not only our very particular starting point for our attitude to euthanasia, but also for our care of the sick and the dying. One of the indicators against which we should judge ourselves as a society is how we care for our neediest and most vulnerable members.
It is said that ‘hard cases make bad law’. Even in the most democratic of societies there are limits to human freedom. Whatever safeguards might be set against potential abuse of a change in the law on assisted suicide or euthanasia, once a principle is established, it will gradually, and perhaps not so gradually, be extended in every direction. Pressure groups would have a field day. The present law is strong and clear and does give discretion to prosecutors and judges in hard cases.
As we are all living longer, the pressure on the frail elderly and other vulnerable people to end their lives rather than be a burden on their families and others would increase.
He may have been very blunt, but Acting U.S. Solicitor General Walter Dellinger said as much when he urged the Supreme Court to allow states to ban assisted suicide: ‘The least costly treatment for any illness is lethal medication,’ he warned.
As we begin the festival of the Paralympics tomorrow, it is worth noting that all the major disability rights groups oppose any change in the law. They believe that it would lead to increased prejudice towards them.
The nagging question after Tony’s case and then his death is what good and positive effects can it have on our care for people in his situation.”
Kate Allatt was diagnosed with Locked-In Syndrome after suffering a massive brainstem stroke aged just 39 in 2010. The mother of three from Dore was told she would never walk or talk again and wired up to a life support machine for nine weeks.
At first, Kate wanted to die but moved her thumb nine weeks after her stroke, which gave her hope she would one day get back to normal.
Now 41, she has proven the medical profession wrong. She is walking and talking again and is now an inspirational speaker, a published author and founder of the charity Fighting Strokes (www.fightingstrokes.org).
Voted Extraordinary Woman Of The Year in 2011, Kate, 41, penned Running Free: Breaking Free from Locked-In Syndrome five months after finally leaving the hospital that had been her home for nine months.
Her inspirational new book, Gonna Fly Now! Locked-In Laughter Unleashed, is available now at www.GonnaFlyNowbook.com
“On Sunday 7th February 2010, the day my life changed forever, I was 39 years old, a wife and mother of three kids, who was leading a typically hectic working life.
I even ran 70 miles a week. I was far too busy to deal with my persistent, nagging headache. That, you could say, was my big mistake.
I collapsed and was put in a coma for three days. When I awoke, I was the same person inside but could move absolutely nothing. I had suffered a major brainstem stroke.
Soon, thankfully, I was able to move my eyelids - one blink for no, two for yes. Eventually diagnosed with Locked-In Syndrome, I had a catheter, a stomach feed and a tracheostomy - I couldn’t even breathe for myself. You could say I was a ‘cripple’. In fact they were the words I would later spell out, to the enormous distress of my family.
So I know how that amazing man, Tony Nicklinson, felt.
He was tired of being the same person, but merely existing in his personal, physical shell. He had no dignity, few pleasures and needed 24-hour care. He was trapped with his own thoughts, fears and anxieties.
He didn’t want to live like that any longer. He had given up. I myself tried to help, but all stroke symptoms are different, just as all individuals are different.
I am terribly upset for his family, but I am relieved for Tony that it is over. I only hope he didn’t endure much pain in the end, though given my own persistent experiences of pneumonia, I doubt that.
Others with Locked-In Syndrome do not feel the way Tony did and lead happy, fulfilling lives, albeit without dignity. They choose life. I am one of them and my views may surprise because I have made such an amazing recovery, but I believe Tony should have been given the choice of how to end his life if and when he wanted to, just like the rest of us, who can brush our teeth, wipe our own bum or brush our hair or swipe a wasp away, can do.
It was HIS life. He knew his own mind.
I do think animal suffering seems to be more important than human suffering. Parliament should listen to people in Tony’s terrible situation and widen the debate to encompass people with other debilitating illnesses and carefully move forward to allow exceptions to be made to the law if the individual wants it.
Why not extend the terms of the ‘compassionate exception’ to people who have no functional movement, yet feel everything and don’t want to live like that any more? Blinking, eye gaze and eye tracking equipment could allow an individual to communicate their desire to end their own life.
Tony, unflinching and remarkable, set the ball rolling in this debate. Go fly now, Tony.