'Locked-in syndrome' man to have right-to-die case heard


Tony Nicklinson: 'It is no longer acceptable for 21st Century medicine to be governed by 20th Century attitudes'

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A paralysed man who wants a doctor to be able to lawfully end his life can proceed with his "right-to-die" case, a High Court judge has ruled.

Tony Nicklinson, 58, from Melksham, Wiltshire, has "locked-in syndrome" following a stroke in 2005 and is unable to carry out his own suicide.

He is seeking legal protection for any doctor who helps him end his life.

The Ministry of Justice argues making such a ruling would authorise murder and change the law governing it.

"Locked-in syndrome" leaves people with paralysed bodies but fully-functioning minds.

The judge's ruling now means that Mr Nicklinson's case will go to a full hearing, where medical evidence can be heard.

Following the judge's ruling that his case can proceed, Mr Nicklinson's wife Jane read out a statement from her husband on BBC 5live.

It said: "I'm delighted that the issues surrounding assisted dying are to be aired in court. Politicians and others can hardly complain with the courts providing the forum for debate if the politicians continue to ignore one of the most important topics facing our society today.

"It's no longer acceptable for 21st Century medicine to be governed by 20th Century attitudes to death."

'Stressful' wait

Mr Nicklinson, who communicates through the use of an electronic board or special computer, said before the ruling that his life was "dull, miserable, demeaning, undignified and intolerable".

During the radio interview, Mrs Nicklinson passed on questions to her husband, using his letters board to spell out his response.


Tony Nicklinson's case goes to the heart of the conflict between the sanctity of life and an individual's right to self-determination in ending it.

The law currently draws a crucial distinction between doctors deciding not to provide or continue treatment, which might prolong life, and acting to end a life, by for example administering lethal drugs.

Whilst the former may be lawful, the latter is murder and Mr Justice Charles said Mr Nicklinson was inviting the court to "cross the rubicon".

Mr Nicklinson's case is not one of assisted suicide, like that of the multiple sclerosis sufferer Debbie Purdy who won a clarification of prosecuting policy where a loved one assists a person to die.

His paralysis is so severe that he cannot be assisted in taking his own life, for instance by swallowing lethal drugs. He would have to be killed by someone else.

He is seeking a court declaration that a doctor who ended his life would have a defence of "necessity" to any murder charge.

"Necessity" was argued in the case of two conjoined twins when doctors, faced with the choice of losing two lives or saving one, separated the pair.

Mr Nicklinson's case is a leap on from there. Here doctors would be acting to end a single life. That would open the way to voluntary active euthanasia, and is a step too far for many.

When asked what he hoped would happen next, he replied: "I will be able to access a doctor when the time is right."

He went on to spell out: "I can just about cope with life at the moment, but not forever."

Mrs Nicklinson said she was "really pleased" with the judge's decision. "It's been quite stressful waiting for this decision.

"It's really good to know that the judge thinks that we have a case that needs to be argued."

Earlier, Mrs Nicklinson said that her husband "just wants to know that, when the time comes, he has a way out".

"If you knew the kind of person that he was before, life like this is unbearable for him," she added.

She said she did not know when her husband might actually want to die. "I suppose just when he can't take it any more," she said.

Mr Nicklinson has two grown-up daughters and had his stroke while on a business trip to Athens.

The High Court heard Mr Nicklinson's first statement in the proceedings, in which he said his stroke "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 the baby.

"I have no privacy or dignity left. I am washed, dressed and put to bed by carers who are, after all, still strangers.

"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 not have called the ambulance but let nature take its course."

Locked-in syndrome

  • Condition in which patient is mute and totally paralysed, except for eye movements, but remains conscious
  • Usually results from massive haemorrhage or other damage
  • Affects upper part of brain stem, which destroys almost all motor function but leaves the higher mental functions intact

His legal action was launched to seek court declarations that a doctor could intervene to end his "indignity" and have a "common law defence of necessity" against any murder charge.

But David Perry QC, representing the Ministry of Justice, told the High Court that Mr Nicklinson "is saying the court should positively authorise and permit as lawful the deliberate taking of his life".

He added: "That is not, and cannot be, the law of England and Wales unless Parliament were to say otherwise."

Following his ruling at the High Court, Mr Justice Charles said the case's issues "raise questions that have great social, ethical and religious significance and they are questions on which widely differing beliefs and views are held, often strongly".

Start Quote

This is a case which is likely to go further, which is likely to end up in the Supreme Court one way or another, before the law is changed”

End Quote Saimo Chahl Solicitor for Tony Nicklinson

He said the issues before him only related to whether Mr Nicklinson's arguments "have any real prospect of success or whether there is some other compelling reason why these proceedings should be tried".

Mr Nicklinson's solicitor, Saimo Chahl, said the next step was for the courts to examine "in great detail what the individual circumstances of the case are before authorising any steps to be taken".

"It would all be extremely carefully controlled and vetted before any doctor were given permission - were we to be successful.

"And you have to bear in mind actually that this is a case which is likely to go further, which is likely to end up in the Supreme Court one way or another, before the law is changed."

"Right-to-die" campaigner Debbie Purdy, who has severe multiple sclerosis, said Mr Nicklinson was an intelligent, vibrant man who should be able to make his own choices.

She said he was not asking to die "tomorrow" but to improve the quality of the life he's living at the moment by "knowing that if it becomes too much for him, he will be able to... to end it".

BBC legal correspondent Clive Coleman said the case went beyond assisted suicide as Mr Nicklinson's paralysis is so severe it would prevent him from receiving assistance to kill himself and he would have to be killed - and that would amount to murder.

He said Mr Nicklinson was seeking a court declaration based on his right to respect for private life under Article 8 of the Human Rights Convention - in effect saying that in his circumstances, his right to life included the right to end his life in a humane manner of his choosing.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 964.

    When the traditional religions were formed, there was no modern complex medicine and those whith major disabilities died. Now modern surgical and gene based techniques enable people who have sufferered major trauma , such a strokes causing 'locked in' syndrom,to continue to survive.We need to accomodate our ethics to this reality and allow the individual to make their informed choice

  • rate this

    Comment number 955.

    My son was kept alive with medical intervention from age 10 months until 20. He was bedridden and unable to move, but could speak. He decided not to be admitted to hospital for last illness, he had had enough. I stayed and watched while it took 9 days for him to die with respiratory failure. Not very pretty, not very peaceful and not very painfree. Why should people have to go through this?

  • rate this

    Comment number 947.

    If I ever choose to end my life, I want it to be my decision, made calmly and rationally, and with (if I choose) the involvement of my nearest and dearest. If I have to seek help from someone else, how can the law guarantee that everything is above board ? It would require considerable intervention to do so, and the state is rightly nervous about intervening in such delicate personal matters.

  • rate this

    Comment number 812.

    i also have lock-in-syndrome,, just not as bad as some, i can move hand/1 finger a bit. I sympathize with mr. Nickinson. Life is tolerable now but who knows in the future,. I have been in nursing homes but now in own apt. Nursing homes treat u worse than a side of beef. I vowed never to return. Death would be more humane.

  • rate this

    Comment number 808.

    I am pleased this man has the choice now and it's about time that this was allowed for certain condtions. Locked in syndrome is such a terrible condtion, not that I know first hand of course but I do care for someone who has it and have seen what they have been through for the last year. Can you even imagine how it must be to live that way? I know I would like the choice if it became to much.


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