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Tony Nicklinson – there are limits to choice in a free society

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23rd January 2012

Man with locked-in syndrome begins high court battle.

As reported in the Guardian, Telegraph and Huffington Post, Tony Nicklinson, a 57 year old man paralysed from the neck down after suffering a stroke that left him with locked-in syndrome, today begins a high court battle to allow doctors to end his life. Today's hearing is a 'pre-trial review'.

We have mentioned this case in some detail previously so will not review the background again here.

But the key point to grasp is that Nicklinson, because he is not capable of killing himself even with assistance, is not seeking assisted suicide but euthanasia. So this is an assault on the Murder Act 1965 and not the Suicide Act 1961.

Nicklinson is pushing for a much greater change in the law than either the Falconer Commission on 'Assisted Dying' or Dignity in Dying (formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society). They are campaigning for assisted suicide for people who are terminally ill - but euthanasia is one step further than assisted suicide and Nicklinson is not terminally ill.

Such a change would have far reaching implications by potentially removing legal protection from large numbers of sick and disabled people.

No one can help but be sympathetic to Tony Nicklinson but cases like his are extremely rare and hard cases make bad law. The overwhelming majority of people with severe disability - even with 'locked-in syndrome' - do not wish to die but rather want support to live.

The current law is clear and right and does not need fixing or further weakening. On the one hand the penalties it holds in reserve act as a powerful deterrent to exploitation and abuse by those who might have an interest, financial or otherwise, in the deaths of vulnerable people. On the other hand the law gives judges some discretion to temper justice with mercy when sentencing in hard cases. We should not be meddling with it.

Any further removal of legal protection by creating exceptions for bringing prosecutions would encourage unscrupulous people to take liberties and would place more vulnerable people - those who are elderly, disabled, sick or depressed - under pressure to end their lives so as not impose a burden on family, carers or society.

Even in a free democratic society there are limits to choice. Every law limits choice and stops some people doing what they might desperately wish to do but this is necessary in order to maintain protection for others.

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