Samuel Marshall writes from London: Tony Nicklinson wants to end his life. He is paralysed after a stroke seven years ago. He cannot end his life by himself as he is totally incapable of doing so. He has been able to communicate that he wishes to escape the imprisonment of his body. Life to him is an almost unbearable burden. He is bitterly disappointed that a High Court judge declined to pass judgment on whether assisting someone to end his or her life is murder in English law. The judge bottled out and said only Parliament should decide. Mr Nicklinson can appeal to the Supreme Court and hope it will grant him his wish to die, assisted of course by another person.
Gone are the days when judges decided matters of life and death. Capital punishment is no longer handed down. Lawyers have been requesting Parliament to make clear if it is possible to assist someone to die. Parliament has consistently bottled out. No government wants to go down in history as the one which legalised killing. Those of a religious bent and others could call the law a licence to kill. How is anyone to judge if an assisted suicide is an assisted suicide or a plain case of murder. The victim is dead and cannot confirm that he or she requested to be put to sleep.
Such a law would obviously be open to abuse. But then all laws are open to abuse. They are imperfect attempts to regulate human behaviour. So will the present Coalition bite the bullet and enact legislation which permits assisted suicide? Of course not. The present disarray makes it unlikely that the Coalition could actually agree on a menu for a state dinner. So uncertainty remains.
What could be done? Tony Nicklinson could request and be granted his wish to die. Who would administer the fatal dose? It could be done by a near relative. He or she could then challenge the Director of Public Prosecutions to arrest them and charge them with murder. If the case were heard, the judgement would set a precedent. English law is based on precedent. However, the legal eagles might flinch at the prospect of a trial which would arouse emotions in almost every breast. My guess is that a great majority would argue for an acquittal. A verdict of guilty would risk bringing the whole legal system into disrepute. Law has to be seen to be fair to be obeyed.
So who would oppose assisted suicide? Those who believe that it would give carte blanche to those who wished to dispose of elderly relatives suffering from dementia and other terminal illnesses. Especially if money were involved. These objectors would argue there is no foolproof way of monitoring the situation. The other group would be those whose religious faith leads them to believe that only God can decide when a person’s lifespan should come to an end. Assisted suicide to them would be murder.
There is another point at issue. If there were a law on assisted suicide would doctors have the right to terminate the life of a new-born baby if they judged that its quality of life would be so low as to be a burden to it? This practice was observed in Germany under national socialism. The mentally ill were also disposed of. They were viewed as a burden to society. Morally and legally these practices have been condemned.
So it is not surprising that the judge has opted out. He did not want to become known as the killing judge. No government wants the same label. So unfortunately the subject will be left in limbo because those in authority do not have the nerve to decide one way or another.
Tony Nicklinson will carry on suffering.