The Daily Mail has branded Tony Nicklinson, a British man who seeks the right to legally end his life after having suffered from ‘locked-in syndrome’ for twelve years, a ‘single minded, selfish obsessionist.’ A High Court judge has ruled that Mr. Nicklinson should be able to seek a ‘defence of necessity’ for cases such as his, thus establishing that ‘there are no alternative means by which his suffering may be relieved’ and absolving of murder the doctor who would assist Mr. Nicklinson’s death.
Whilst the Mail’s disgustingly frivolous treatment of a man who would think himself ‘lucky’ to develop cancer so that he could ‘say no to those who would keep (him) alive against (his) will’ does not stray onto the dangerous ground of quasi-religious ‘sanctity of life‘ claims, it does revert to scaremongering talk of dangerous precedents. Kathy Gyngell writes in her article that this is a case of ‘personal ambitions’ being put before considerations of the ‘consequences for society’ and that the judge should not have given his request ‘the time of day.’ Ms. Gyngell apparently belongs to the ‘hard cases make bad laws’ camp. However, what it seems people really mean when they cite this cliché is that hard cases make difficult laws. That may well be the case, but do we really think that it’s easy to draw the line between free speech and hate speech, or self-defence and murder? No. Do we draw such lines anyway? Of course. It seems clear to us that logistical considerations should not determine legal principles.
Besides, whilst there is reason for caution when discussing cases of non-voluntary euthanasia (not be confused with involuntary euthanasia), it is deceptive to overplay the possibility of misjudgment in cases of voluntary euthanasia, as the Mail does in drawing desperate parallels to the uncertainties of abortion. As with Tony Nicklinson, these are instances of people making a ‘voluntary, clear, settled and informed decision’ to end their lives, with such cases having been properly considered for years in Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland and three American states.
It soon becomes clear that it is exactly this ‘voluntary decision’ that the Daily Mail opposes. In a typical case of ‘political-correctness-gone-mad’ hype, the Mail dubs euthanasia a case of ‘rights too far,’ claiming that we are ‘obsessively rights oriented’ and that, in fact, ‘death is not a right.’ The National Right To Life News Today has reacted to this case in the same manner, saying
“We all accept that there are limits to choice. Even in a free democratic society there are boundaries to our autonomy. We are not entitled to exercise ‘freedoms’ that will endanger the reasonable freedoms of others…this is in order to maintain protection for others.”
Let’s first be clear that euthanasia, a ‘good death,’ does not endanger, or even interfere with, the rights of the general population. Secondly, death is a right. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that we have a right to life, not an obligation to life. Thus, in the same way that the right to security of person does not deny us the right to put ourselves in danger or that the right to own property does not deny us the right to forgo that property, the right to life should not deny us the right to death. In fact, in exercising our right to death we are precisely forgoing the security of that which is our most fundamental piece of property. If we are to be self-determined, autonomous and empowered to take true ownership of our lives we must also be able to take ownership of our deaths. Furthermore, the Universal Declaration seems to lend support to Mr. Nicklinson’s case in particular, stating that ‘everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself’ and that ‘no one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation.’ It seems that for the courts to extrapolate Mr. Nicklinson’s right to die from these statements alone would be and act of inference rather than interpretation.
On the contrary, Ms. Gyngell believes it is ‘not for the courts but for Parliament to make a decision’ regarding euthanasia policy. Crucially, though, this should not be a matter of policy. This is a decision regarding rights, not politics, and it is therefore only appropriate that it be made in the domain of justice – the High Court – and not in the domain of party-centric Members of Parliament and unelected Lords.
To oppose the legalization of voluntary euthanasia based on an unfounded fear of complicated precedents and a confusion of a fundamental human right for a matter of political opinion is to make a mockery of Mr. Nicklinson’s ‘intolerable’ suffering, his privacy, his dignity and his right to a self-determined life and death. So yes, Ms. Gyngell and The Daily Mail, we are proud to be ‘obsessively rights oriented’ and to recognise Tony Nicklinson’s right to die.