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No Precedent? Then Set One!

I can hardly bear to see poor Tony Nicklinson's face as he hears the news that he is not allowed to die. I am ashamed of my country and its laws. Here's part of The Independent's account (unfortunately there doesn't seem to be any way to bypass the commercial that pops up unbidden).

The debate about assisted suicide has been reignited after the High Court ruled that two men with locked-in-syndrome cannot be legally helped to die.

Tony Nicklinson, 58, and a second man known as Martin, 47, mounted legal challenges in attempt to secure immunity from prosecution for any professional who helped them to die.

The men are completely physically dependent and can only move their eyes and eye lids yet remain cognitively sharp. Both want to die but neither is capable of taking their own life.

Lawyers acting for Mr Nicklinson, who suffered a catastrophic stroke in 2005, argued for an extension to the common law defence of ‘necessity’ for murder because the alternative – forcing him to stay alive – is worse. They also argued that the government is in breach of his Article 8 right to ‘privacy, dignity and autonomy’, a right he cannot exercise independently because of severe disability.

The court rejected the “bold” submission, stating that there was no precedent anywhere in the world and such socially controversial changes were only for Parliament.

The decision was condemned by Mr Nicklinson and his family but welcomed by medical leaders and religious groups.

Yet again, religion turns out to be the major culprit. As Polly Toynbee wrote yesterday, there have been attempts in the House of Lords to do something about the right to seek professional (or even amateur) assistance in dying when you are too incapacitated to kill yourself:-

In opinion polls, for years, more than 80% have supported this change in the law, but every attempt at a right-to-die reform has been sabotaged by the large religious lobby, galvanised by Care Not Killing. The red benches, heavily stacked with the religious, including 26 bishops, saw off the last bills.

Polly also makes the excellent point that

The irony of the law is that the dying must kill themselves long before their condition becomes intolerable. In Oregon, where the law allows it, the terminally ill know they can call for an injection whenever they feel they can take no more. That reassurance so eases their anxiety that fewer choose to end their lives. Dignitas has hundreds of British members on their "waiting list", but they will have to make that grim journey to a bleak clinic far from home while they may still have months of reasonable life left. Besides, what hypocrisy for the law to allow suicide tourism, while denying medically assisted death at home where people want to die.

It seems that the High Court judges could find only one serious objection to treating Tony Nicklinson humanely, and granting him his clearly expressed wish about what should happen to his own body. The objection is that there is "no precedent".

Early in my Fellowship of New College, when the great philosopher A J ("Freddy") Ayer was a senior Fellow, we were debating some measure that the majority wanted to pass. The minority objected that there was "no precedent". Freddy's response was instant, characteristic and genial. "No precedent? Then let's set one!"

No precedent for allowing a human being to be put out of his appalling misery, when he has lost the ability to do it on his own? No precedent? Then in the name of humanity and decency SET ONE!

TAGGED: RICHARD DAWKINS


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