'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 975.

    I have an incurable degenerative neurological condition. At present I can still work, but as I watch my health deteriorate, I know the time will come when I am incapacitated. I watched my cousin die of the same condition and vowed I would never go through such suffering. Please, those with the power to do so, change the law so I can spare myself and my family the slow decline of a once-proud life

  • rate this

    Comment number 974.

    Whatever one's personal beliefs, one can have nothing but sympathy for those immediately involved in this case. However, the crucial point here concerns who makes the law in this country. Rightly or wrongly, law is made in Britain by Parliament which is composed of the peoples' elected representatives. It is certainly not the role of any unelected judge or lawyer to usurp this authority.

  • rate this

    Comment number 973.

    Post 907 Jonathon,You have honestly summed it up,others have
    skirted the issue,so if a precedence is set think of the workers
    Salaries will Sky Rocket Disabled People will be pressured to just

  • rate this

    Comment number 972.


    Your understanding of God is anthropomorphic. If such a being were to exist then it would exist on its own terms not ours. You could similarly list things to thank God for!

    If any being were to be eternally interfering we could not be free. We evolved on this planet, in this environment with its natural 'distasters', change them and you can't have us as the creatures we are.

  • rate this

    Comment number 971.

    Good luck to him. My greatest fear is being locked in, or dying slowly in pain while someone, who has sworn "to do no harm" fails to see the harm in refusing to a human being the dignity...afforded to a cat,a horse, a dog when we end their suffering

    I echo your sentiments and bet most of the naysayers here don't. If they could see themselves in that tate they'd think differently

  • rate this

    Comment number 970.

    Forcing man to live as disabled is Cruel and Unusual Punishment, Torture ! The right to die is the only compassionate option for a civilized society. Trapped in the disabled body is 24 hours of Torture, violates human rights. Any persons opposed to this right to die, should first be tortured for One full Month 24 hours a day before having a vote. Let him Die ! Torture is wrong ! PLEASE !

  • rate this

    Comment number 969.

    I am also a physician and I am for the freedom to choose. No religion can impose a burden on those people that do not believe, or believe otherwise. Let christians keep their suffering but let's defend the ones that prefer not to. This is a step forward towards a coherent and reasonable humanity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 968.


    I need only one word to describe this guy, coward!"

    Congratulations, Elisha. I hope your very proud of yourself for that comment.

    Let's just say it would be extremely ironic if, one day, you found yourself in the position of Mr Nicklinson.

  • rate this

    Comment number 967.

    Late this summer, I watched a French movie that was all about a man that had gained this condition, he could not talk, apart from communicating by a blinking eye. I would say that it is torture to let people live with this condition, if they choose not to. Is torture against human rights? Its probably more of a punishment then to what a criminal gets these days.

  • rate this

    Comment number 966.

    some would say from God we came & to God we return...

    And some would ask what He or She has done for humanity. Not a lot, looking at the state of the world. Does God never watch TV charity ads about saving African children or assuaging victims of tsunamis and earthquakes? Or helping people like Mr Nicklinson? Does God like to watch suffering?

  • rate this

    Comment number 965.

    Good luck to him. My greatest fear is being locked in, or dying slowly in pain while someone, who has sworn "to do no harm", fails to see the harm in refusing to a human being the dignity and grace afforded to a cat, a horse, a dog when we end their suffering.

  • 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 963.

    @ 945. Loz

    Interesting perspective.

    However the law does not recognise humans and animals in the same would have been liable for false imprisonment... and those kids who threw the cat off the tower block would have been charged with attempted murder....

  • rate this

    Comment number 962.

    957.Artemesia : There is no 'right to die' but if you choose to end your own life by your own hand in private then there's not much anyone can do about it

    So ironic that it was a capital offence until 1964 for which you could be hung. Well, that's gone so we've moved on a bit thankfully. Let's now learn from Switzerland Belgium and Netherlands and gird ourselves with compassion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 961.

    @946.Doctor Bob

    My understanding of the Swiss situation is that numbers of people opting for asst suicide are increasing, 33% (ish) in 2011. I wonder why, it may be suicide tourism in which case we shouldn't duck an issue they've had the guts to face up to. We should legalise it.

    I do have a concern with regard to the development & provision of palliative care when euthanasia is available.

  • rate this

    Comment number 960.

    "I find it so strange, we seem to treat our animals better than ourselves"
    "Do you walk around on a leash, witha collar on your neck with your name around it?"

    Literally? No.
    Metaphorically and to all intents and purposes? Yes.

    Is this man his own property or the state's?

    Religious posters; If he is spiritual that is between him and his God, not you and yours.

  • rate this

    Comment number 959.

    952 Mayna so agree.Where's the compassion in forcing someone to live a life physically intolerable to them? 21st Century medicine can keep someone alive when they would otherwise have died naturally; & we think it's then our right to take their choice to die from them? Someone with locked in syndrome does not have the CHOICE to end their life; yet our society accepts suicide for far lesser reasons

  • rate this

    Comment number 958.

    If [God] is watching, he must be really cruel allowing this terrible thing to happen in the first place

    => Not to forget his guiding of the Inquisition and treatment of slaves, the cruelty of which beggars belief, so His appetite for cruelty is never in doubt.

  • rate this

    Comment number 957.

    922HippoHunter-"Everyone has the right to live and so equally have a right to die"

    There is no 'right to die' but if you choose to end your own life by your own hand in private then there's not much anyone can do about it

    Tony is not in a position to end his life by his own hand, hence the discussion

    He is seeking Legal clarification regarding a Doctor ending his life for him

  • rate this

    Comment number 956.

    EDITORS' PICKS are a worry he or she is ONE NEGATIVE DUDE/
    DUDESS.Hope they never become GOVERMENT HEALTH


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