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Euthanasia: "Mercy killing" law to be tested

Fergus Walsh | 20:30 UK time, Monday, 19 July 2010

Tony.Nicklinson.jpgThe case of Tony Nicklinson will re-open the debate on assisted dying and so-called "mercy killing". He has locked-in syndrome, following a stroke. Unable to talk, he communicates by blinking or nodding his head. He also has a specially adapted computer with a push-button control.

Mr Nicklinson is not able to travel, but I met his wife Jane and daughters Beth and Lauren at their solicitors in London. Mrs Nicklinson read out a statement that he had dictated to her:

"I am a 56 year old man who suffered a catastrophic stroke in June 2005 whilst on a business trip to Athens, Greece. It left me paralysed below the neck and unable to speak. I need help in almost every aspect of my life. I cannot scratch if I itch. I cannot pick my nose if it is blocked and I can only eat if I am fed like a baby - only I won't grow out of it, unlike a baby. I have no privacy or dignity left. I am washed, dressed and put to bed by carers who are, after all, still strangers. I am fed up with my life and don't want to spend the next 20 years or so like this. Am I grateful that the Athens doctors saved my life? No I am not. If I had my time again, and knew then what I know now, I would have not called the ambulance but let nature take its course."

Mr Nicklinson wants his wife to be allowed to inject him with a lethal drugs dose without the fear of her being prosecuted for murder or manslaughter. As the law stands, that seems a vain hope because actively taking a life, even with consent, has always been treated as a crime, leading to a jury trial.

The Director of Public Prosecutions recently issued new guidance on assisted suicide, but made it clear it did not apply to cases where someone directly ended another's life, sometimes called euthanasia or "mercy killing".

The guidance on assisted dying followed a victory by campaigner Debbie Purdy, who wanted to know if her husband would face charges if he helped her travel abroad to die. The DPP said each case would be examined on its merits, but if the victim had a settled wish to die and the person assisting the suicide was acting out of compassion, then it might be against the public interest to prosecute.

That's the reason why no relatives have been prosecuted after travelling to Switzerland to support loved ones dying with help of the Dignitas group.

However, when it comes to euthanasia or "mercy killing" it is down to juries to decide the fate of the accused. In two cases earlier this year, juries came to different conclusions.

Kay Gilderdale, who helped her disabled daughter to die, was cleared of attempted murder. The court heard that her daughter Lynn had a settled wish to die and had attempted suicide.

But another mother, Frances Inglis, was convicted of murder and given a minimum term of nine years after injecting her brain-damaged son with a lethal dose of heroin. Her son Thomas was unable to communicate his wishes.

In this latest case, the DPP is probably unlikely to want to further clarify the law. He did so in the Purdy case only after defeat in the House of Lords. If, as likely, he argues that the law on murder needs no further explanation, then the legal team representing the Nicklinsons will seek to make a claim under the European Convention on Human Rights.

They will contend that the law of murder in England and Wales, which prohibits all intentional killing regardless of the victim's wishes, constitutes an interference with the right to respect for private life under article 8 of the Convention.

Tony.Nicklinson.before.stroke.jpgThe Nicklinson case has strong similarities with that of Diane Pretty, who had motor neurone disease. She asked the DPP to grant immunity from prosecution to her husband if he assisted her suicide. She died of natural causes in 2002, just a month after judges in Strasbourg ruled against her. Her legal battle had lasted for several years.

The case of Tony Nicklinson will inevitably provoke strong opinions both in favour and against assisted dying, and it may also take a long time to work its way through the courts.

update: July 21st 12:50 I contacted the solicitors Bindmans, who represent the Nicklinsons. I asked them to draw the family's attention to the comments regarding technology that might aid Tony Nicklinson in communicating. Bindmans have sent me an email saying this:

Jane has asked me to thank you for the blog. She said: "We actually have one of these computers on order. We had a fight to get funding but won in the end. It will be an improvement no doubt."


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