The Right to Suicide: The Case of Tony Nicklinson

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17 October 2023

By Amy

Would it surprise you if I said that suicide is something that most of us take for granted? If you are a non-disabled person, you will have never thought about the fact that you have the right to commit suicide. However, some people, such as Tony Nicklinson, a man who suffered from Locked-In Syndrome, are not able to access this right. He expressed this frustration in an interview with the BBC: “What I find impossible to live with is the knowledge that… I have no way out – suicide – when this life gets too much to bear.”

This article will share his story and argue that death should be an option available to everyone, not just for those who are fortunate enough to have freedom over their bodies. So should euthanasia be legalised to prevent tragic situations like this? 

Suicide, the act of intentionally ending your own life, was legalised in England and Wales through the Suicide Act 1961. It is also no longer a crime in the United States but remains punishable by fines and prison sentences in 20 countries. Assisting suicide (the act of helping someone to commit suicide) is also a crime. On the other hand, if someone wanted to end their life with medical assistance, euthanasia (the administration of a lethal dose of a drug) would have been the first option but this is illegal in the UK and most countries. This leaves the question as to how someone with a physical disability that severely limits their movement can access their right to suicide.

Who is Tony Nicklinson?

Tony Nicklinson was a father and a husband, who was 58 when he died after refusing food and contracting pneumonia. However, there is more to his story than this. Nicklinson survived a stroke in 2005 which left him paralysed from the neck down. This resulted in his life being miserable, restricted and humiliating. His only method of communication was blinking at a board of letters that his wife would use to speak for him. He needed assistance with all daily activities such as brushing his teeth. Due to this extreme dependence on others and his lack of freedom, Nicklinson described his life as a ‘living nightmare’ and one that he could not escape. His experience with Locked-In Syndrome inevitably ruled out his ability to kill himself.

Tony’s Battle

He then decided to go to the High Court to attempt to change the law that stated that assisted dying was illegal because he felt that ‘It cannot be acceptable in 21st Century Britain that I am denied the right to take my own life just because I am physically handicapped.’ He argued that if he, as a physically disabled person, could not take his own life, someone else should be allowed to assist him. This seems logical and just, but his appeal was rejected by three High Court judges, leaving him ‘crestfallen, totally devastated and very frightened.’ Thus, Nicklinson was left in a terrible situation: he could not end his life himself and someone else could not end it for him.

This led to the tragic decision being made by Nicklinson and his family that he would refuse food, as it was the only way to end his life legally. As a result of his weakened body and immune system, he contracted pneumonia and died a painful and undignified death on the 20th of August, 2012. 

Although his death was a choice, it was not the one he wanted to make, or deserved to make. Nicklinson wanted to end his life on his terms, not those of his illness.’ But he was refused the right to die in a legal battle that he spent his final years fighting, not only for himself but for others in a similar situation.

Tony’s Legacy

We must remember Nicklinson’s efforts in his appeal for justice. We must honour his legacy and his hard work in appealing for change in the last years of his life in the hopes of legalising euthanasia, to prevent situations like his from happening again.

A world in which the right to die is only available to the non-disabled is not a just world. Doctors simply must be allowed to administer life-ending drugs to those who cannot end their own lives to avoid the legal and ethical implications of assisted suicide.

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