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:
- Obsessed by the Right to Die?
- David Brooks Individual Responsibility to Individual Rights
- Rabbinical Court Condemns Dog to Death
David Brooks Individual Responsibility to Individual Rights