Tony Nicklinson: Escaping the Life Penalty

On 22nd August, Tony Nicklinson reclaimed his right to life by starving himself to death.

The 58 year-old British man, who had requested a good death after having suffered from Locked-In Syndrome for 7 years, was instead forsaken to a prolonged and painful process in his struggle to determine the outcome of his own life. The day that the UK’s High Court ruled against his request to be assisted in his death, Tony Nicklinson was sentenced to a Life Penalty.

This language may seem hyperbolic, but Mr. Nicklinson’s punishment was not so far removed from that of the Death Penalty. To refuse a man the right to die is morally equivalent to refusing a man the right to live: it exercises the same dominion over a person’s very being. In both cases, it reveals a government’s belief that a person’s existence or inexistence should be its prerogative. In order to escape this Life Penalty, Mr. Nicklinson was driven to refuse food and liquids until he contracted pneumonia. His only crime? Being disabled and thus unable to take his life unassisted.

The High Court claimed that this was a matter for Parliament, which has not made any move towards legalising euthanasia either. The obvious scaremonger’s choice as to why not  is the ‘slippery slope’ argument: that the legalization of euthanasia could lead to ambiguous cases and abuses in the system. This is an argument we should reject. As I argued in my previous article, we should be courageous enough to make the right laws, even if they are the hardest to enforce. Whilst some are fearful of a future of complex court cases, I am petrified of a present in which disabled adults are forced to starve themselves to death in order to claim authority over what is indisputably theirs. Clearly, logistical considerations should not determine moral or legal principles.

So why would the UK government, a state that opposes the death penalty, oppose euthanasia? There is an inconsistency here: it is not willing, quite rightly, to be an arbiter of life in the former case, and yet it is in the latter. Some may claim that ‘the killing of a criminal is quite different to the killing of an innocent citizen,’ and others that ‘to take life is never right because all life is precious.’ However, the most likely, and perhaps reassuring, reason is that governments generally take it upon themselves to protect first and foremost the integrity – the ‘completeness’ – of their citizens. The critical realisation, however, is that, in cases such as these, no-one’s conceptions as to the worth of particular lives, or even life in general, are relevant. In cases of fully-informed, voluntary euthanasia, life-and-death decisions should be based on the autonomy of the person whose life is at stake.

It is distressing to think that it is possible in this age to die a subversive death, a transgressive death, a death that the state does not wish to afford us. The UK Government should recognise that the only humane stance to take on death is one that respects the principle of autonomy.


Other related articles in TRS:

David Brooks Individual Responsibility to Individual Rights

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7 comments to “Tony Nicklinson: Escaping the Life Penalty”

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  1. Very nice. Keep up the good thought

  2. “To refuse a man the right to die is morally equivalent to refusing a man the right to live”

    It’s a great one-liner, but I think it fundamentally misses the mark when it comes to the issue of assisted suicide (assisted being the operative word). The right to life and the right to death are not two sides of the same coin, at least not in Tony Nicklinson’s case, because his desire for an end to his life could never be a simple issue of individual autonomy. Being severely disabled and unable to take his own life, Nicklinson (and other ‘Right to Die’ supporters) is on some level seeking a state-sanctioned and state-supported death.

    (One of the worst possible outcomes that I can see coming from a legalisation of euthanasia, would be to place responsibility for it’s undertaking into the hands of financially motivated private organisations (the undesirability of such a move should be obvious to even the most die-hard neo-liberal), and so it seems certain that, if legalised, euthanasia would end up, to a greater or lesser extent, as the responsibility of the state – and so it should)

    Nicklinson is thus, by appealing to the state, actually MAKING the issue of his existence/non-existence the state’s prerogative. And not simply the state. As a member of the society in which Nicklinson also resides, as a member of the same state (which acts on my behalf), Nicklinson is appealing to me, and to every member of the state, to participate in his death.

    As soon as the question of an ‘assisted’ suicide is raised, the principle of autonomy is thrown out the window…

  3. I think that is a very good point. The choice seems to be autonomous while the action cannot be. So the question is how are these things to be mediated. I think the question that one should ask Zac is how would one legislate, authorize and control a state appointed benevolent executioner.

  4. Indeed, an interesting point: one man’s autonomy being dependent on the actions of others. This may seem paradoxical, unless we separate the ability of independent action from the ability of autonomous will. Ideally this would be an action that he could undertake himself, but it shouldn’t matter how many people have to assist practically in order for Mr. Nicklinson’s autonomy to be respected. Whether it be one doctor, a whole medical team or an entire framework of legal and medical professionals that are practically involved, the decision made is the same: his.

    Where the matter of the nation’s participation is concerned, we are already implicated. But, again, we must separate action from principle. If you believe we are morally represented by our government, then in both scenarios we participate in the government’s action, whether it be the act of assisting his death or the act of keeping Mr. Nicklinson alive against his will. However, in leaving the decision to Mr. Nicklinson we are not implicated in principle. The decision is entirely his.

    Of course, the question as to how state-sanctioned assisted euthanasia would be regulated is a difficult one, though I wouldn’t advocate this if it didn’t seem clear that the UK is capable of administering a checked-and-balanced legal system. Besides, I stand by my point that logistical considerations should not determine moral and legal principles. As I wrote in my previous article, it’s not easy to draw the line between free speech and hate speech, or self-defence and murder, but we draw those lines anyway in the interests of taking the appropriate legal action.


  5. I won’t try and post pseudenonymously again… Apparently I’ve been reading too much Kierkegaard…

    Your suggestion that an entire team of medical professionals can act as an extension of the autonomous will of a single man has fairly grave repercussions, and I think you’d probably want to reconsider it if you though about it in different contexts. If I understand you correctly, ‘in leaving the decision to Mr Nicklinson we are not implicated in principle’ implies that the fact that medics (and society in general) are carrying out the will of an ‘other’, then responsibility for the action that they take resides with that other.

    Essentially, this would imply that those who carry out instructions are not responsible for those actions – the responsibility lies with the one who issued the command. Thus, Tony Nicklinson’s proposed assisted suicide would actually become a self-suicide, through incorporating medics and society into an extension of his own autonomous will…

    Which would be great, except it’s just not that simple. If it were, we would be unable to hold to account those who, in following orders, commit atrocities in war. They would simply be acting as an extension of the one who issued the command. Furthermore, your point completely ignores the profound impact that participation in the death of another has on those involved – acting on behalf of another does not eliminate the presence of a personal ego…

    Essentially, the idea that Tony Nicklinson’s request to die only affected himself is, to be frank, a complete myth…

  6. The crucial difference between Tony Nicklinson’s case and your exaggerated example is that the medical team are in this case carrying out wishes that relate only to the person whose wishes they are.

    I would of course not suggest that following commands absolves one of moral responsibility generally, but in this case it would be Tony Nicklinson’s wishes, Tony Nicklinson’s life and therefore a case of Tony Nicklinson’s autonomy. Having doctors assist him in this autonomous decision would therefore be his responsibility, as well as his right.

    Regarding the impact on those assisting the suicide process, I would suggest that we could avoid any problems by using only consenting doctors.

    In this way, I see neither Tony Nicklinson’s wishes nor their practical implications interfering with any other person but himself.

  7. I’m afraid I remain unconvinced…

    We might both agree that Tony Nicklinson has a right to kill himself, while we will certainly agree that the officer who commands his soldiers to commit atrocities is in the wrong. My point is that neither of these actions is a simple relationship between a and b – they both have to be mediated. The fact that Tony Nicklinson would be mediated to himself changes nothing – the carrying out of his wishes would involve the participation of others who would share in the moral responsibility for his death (of course moral responsibility can be positive as well as negative). We have to acknowledge that fact, or we reduce such participants to blind tools and implements! In a state that facilitates and provides for assisted suicide, whether legally, financially or actively, every participant in that society would then necessarily share in the moral responsibility for the death of a man like Tony Nicklinson.

    I’m not arguing against legalised euthanasia, but I am arguing that your ‘principle of autonomy’ argument, while persuasive and well-argued, is too simplistic. If we’re to have this debate properly we have to recognise that any changes to the law will not simply impact a few individuals, but involve the whole of society…

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