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08 - 14 Sept, 2012
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THE ORCHARD ON FIRE
 
LONDON EYE
Right To Die; Controversy In Britain
by SHAHED SADULLAH
Right To Die; Controversy In Britain
Not too many people in Pakistan would have heard of a man called Tony Nicklinson. He was what the ladies would perhaps describe as a hunk of a man. Six feet four in height, he was up for things like rugby, sky diving and almost anything that required the daredevil spirit. He was adored by his wife, who called him the love of her life, and his two daughters both of whom thought he was the best Dad in the world.
In 2004 he went to Athens on a business trip and there in his hotel room suffered a devastating heart attack. He managed to call the medical services in time to save his life, but it was not much of a life that he was left with. He came out of hospital almost totally paralysed, able only to move his head slightly and his eyelids. He was fitted out with a computer that responded to the movement of his eyelids and in this manner he could communicate with people, while he was aware of everything that went on around him. His state is described as the locked-in syndrome and it was small comfort to Tony that he was not the only man on the planet who had thus been reduced from a healthy active human to a dribbling incoherent lump. His day would start in his specially adapted home with him being hauled out of his specially adapted bed in a harness and he would spend most of the day in his specially adapted wheelchair in front of the television or the window from where he could see the world go by while he remained immobile. As one of his daughters said: 'Dad hasn't got a life – his life consists of being washed by strangers, undignified moments watching the world go by around him. Life should be about quality and happiness, not just for the sake of it.'
So in 2010, he went to the High Court requesting that the court grant him the permission to die and, since he was not able to help himself to do so, that someone should be allowed to help him to die. The case dragged on for the better part of two years – as there is no 'judicial activism' in the UK – and finally in August 2012 the court decided that it was not in a position to grant Mr Nicklinson his request and that it was up to Parliament to frame the laws necessary in this regard for Tony Nicklinson and others who may be in a similar position. No religious consideration came into the argument, although there was concern over whether such permission, if granted to later become enshrined as case law, may be misused in the case of others who were unable to communicate properly and might be dispatched by people tired of caring for them, or for other motives like money etc.
Mr Nicklinson reportedly gave a stricken howl when he heard that he had lost his case, completely broken, having lost all hope of bringing to a dignified end a life for which he had no use. His wife, a former Right To Die; Controversy In Britainnurse, agreed with his request for the termination of his life but could not bring herself to help him without legal protection as she feared the prospect of spending the rest of her life behind bars. The High Court ruling meant that she, or any doctor who helped him would not be immune from prosecution. Indeed, because Tony Nicklinson could not move, he would not only have been unable to get the drugs necessary to end his life but would also need someone to feed the drugs to him. What he was arguing for, therefore, was not only for the right to die but also for the right for someone to help him die.
That right having been denied, Tony Nicklinson had only one alternative left to him – to refuse food and starve himself to death. He knew this well enough, for shortly after he heard of the court verdict, he rather ominously said that he feared for the future and 'the misery it is bound to bring.'
He was planning to appeal to the Supreme Court against the High Court verdict, but it never came to that. Denying himself food he grew weak very quickly and soon contracted pneumonia. Within a weak of the High Court decision, the death Tony Nicklinson so eagerly sought came to him in the form of mercy from his Creator as he died peacefully in his bed. He was 57.
The legal fight in this regard is, however, not over. Lawyers representing another man, aged 47 who also has locked-in syndrome and who had fought his case for exactly the same thing as Mr Nicklinson – in fact the two had fought their case together – said they would appeal against the decision. The man, who has not been named for legal reasons, said in a statement that he was 'relieved for Tony' and expressed the hope that he too 'could be set free from this existence' but in a manner of his own choosing. The courts do not seem inclined to allow such requests and Parliament seems equally reluctant to pass such a law for fear of abuse. But public opinion on the issue is divided. A petition to change the law in 'assisted dying' called 'Tony Nicklinson's right to die: change the law' has thus far received more than 22,000 signatures in support. Tony Nicklinson's death raises troubling questions in a society where the sanctity of life is based not on religious edict but on human rights considerations. As a human rights issue, a patient has the right to refuse any course of treatment suggested by a doctor; it follows from there that he therefore has the right to take his own life too. There is a clinic in Switzerland called Dignitas which caters for those who want to end their life and it does so at a time of the patient's choice and in a completely painless manner. Since the law in Switzerland allows assisted dying, people who can manage to make their way there are free to choose this course. However, since most people in that situation cannot make their own way there, someone has to take them there and that is where Britain's current laws come in the way. There is also the argument over why should a terminally sick person need to travel to Switzerland.
This is not the first time that this issue has come up in Britain and it is certainly not the last either. The concern of both courts and Parliament is to have sufficient safeguards to ensure that any provisions in this regard are not misused – and it does seem as if no set of words can ever come up with a foolproof law. But sooner or later, someone or the other will take matters in their own hands and then the law will be forced to decide on the extent of criminality involved – and given public opinion on the subject, that could be an extremely tricky decision to make.

 
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