Law on euthanasia challenged by Tony Nicklinson case

Tony Nicklinson communicates using a letter board, by blinking or nodding his head Tony Nicklinson communicates using a letter board, by blinking or nodding his head

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The case of Tony Nicklinson represents a fundamental challenge to the current law on murder and euthanasia.

At present any doctor who deliberately gave a lethal dose - even if the intention was to relieve suffering - would face a murder charge.

In his judgement, Mr Justice Charles said the court was being invited to cross the Rubicon which runs between the care of the patient on one side and euthanasia on the other.

The Ministry of Justice argued that the Nicklinson case should be struck out and never have a full hearing because the law on murder was settled and it was for Parliament, not the courts, to change it. But the judge ruled that Tony Nicklinson had an arguable case which deserved a full hearing.

Judges can and do intervene in end of life decisions.

In 1993 the House of Lords ruled that Tony Bland, crushed in the Hillsborough disaster, should be allowed to die through the withdrawal of feeding tubes. He was in a persistent vegetative state after suffering severe brain damage and the judges said that it was in his best interests to be allowed to die.

In 2000 judges ruled that conjoined twins being treated at London's Great Ormond Street Hospital should be separated - against the wishes of their parents - in the full knowledge that one of them would die. In this case it was to give one of the twins a chance of life.

The courts have also forced prosecutors to clarify the law surrounding suicide. Debbie Purdy, who has multiple sclerosis, wanted to know if her husband would be prosecuted if he took her to a suicide organisation in Switzerland.

Jane Nicklinson said her husband's only way of committing suicide would be to refuse food and the family did not want to go to Switzerland - and this might not even be possible.

The case of Tony Nicklinson will prompt enormous sympathy. Before his stroke he led an active life, working in Dubai as an engineer. For more than six years he has needed constant care - an active mind locked inside a paralysed body.

But many will find the case unsettling. Dr Chris Farnham, a consultant in palliative medicine, said victory for Mr Nicklinson would have damaging implications:

"It would set a precedent that would fundamentally change the relationship between patients and doctors and create an expectation that we can deliver something that within the law we currently can't - namely to actively kill our patients."

Mr Justice Charles said Tony Nicklinson's case raises questions of great social ethical and religious significance, issues which will now be fully aired in court later this year.

Fergus Walsh Article written by Fergus Walsh Fergus Walsh Medical correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I am concerned about a right to die which everyone has, to giving someone the right or even duty to help me (maybe even if they don't like doing it) being told "IT IS MY DUTY TO DIE" maybe by the yobs outside my front door or in the reformed ENGLISH Health Service by a hospital who needs my bed.

    There is nothing religious about this. M

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Even in a free democratic society there are limits to choice. Every law limits choice and stops some people doing what they might desperately wish to do but this is necessary in order to maintain protection for others. No man is an island and this case is about much more than Tony Nicklinson -

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    I think that mitzimum is worrying unduly. Tony Nicklinson has made it clear he wants to be helped to die. I believe that everyone should have that right, but also the right not to die except by natural causes if that is what they want. I know that in Mr. Nicklinson's case I would not want to live.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Clearly most people agree on the right to decide - the sticking point is about protecting the vulnerable with grasping relations pressuring them to 'do the decent thing'l. The biggest safeguard is the normal human survival instinct - the majority of people could never take that path. As legal 'solutions' usually create more problems than they solve, we need some test cases!

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    My father died, almost 50 years ago, in a hospital staffed by nuns. Towards the end one of the sisters said to my mother: "Dora, I think it's time we increased the dose of morphine." My mother agreed, and my father's life was brought peacefully to a close. Was this murder or mercy? I know how I would prefer to go.


Comments 5 of 19



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