We tend to judge a society by how that society treats its less able. Usually that means enabling those less fortunate so they have the rights and privileges of able-bodied people. Yet some things seem to offend our sensibilities. Give a paralysed man a wheelchair, yes. But let him make decisions about his own life just as an able-bodied person could? Apparently not.
Tony Nicklinson wants to go to Dignitas in Switzerland to die. But because he cannot physically swallow or administer the drugs himself he is not eligible. He has ‘locked-in’ syndrome, and can only blink or nod. Various hurdles would have to be overcome. To give Nicklinson the same respect as an able-bodied person, society should look at how to enable him to do the same things an able-bodied person could. Including, if all options fail, put him in a position where he has the freedom to choose whether to go on living an existence he no longer desired.
Dignitas says that, “In every case, for legal reasons, the patient must be able to undertake the last act – that is to swallow, to administer via the gastric tube or to open the valve of the intraveneous access tube – him- or herself.
The Director of Public Prosecutions has decided that in most cases it is lawful for someone to go abroad for assisted suicide – with help (such as with a relative, and perhaps with a wheelchair and so on) if necessary. Tony cannot swallow drugs like an able-bodied person. But the Dignitas director has said that, “We have also members which are not able to swallow. So sometimes they have a gastric tube, and sometimes it’s needed profusion in order to bring the medicine into the circulation of the blood. There we need a person who is instructed how to proceed.” In Tony Nicklinson’s case, he would require a specialist device through which he could trigger a syringe by means of optical recognition of a series of blinks and do administer the drug himself. This does not seem technologically impossible at all – see, for instance, the EyeWriter – link below. But it would doubtless involve many hurdles, legally and scientifically.
What other options could he have? He could legally, with the full cooperation of doctors to relieve any and all distressing symptoms, refuse food and liquids in a careful and controlled manner until death occurs. This is not straightforward (See our book, Five Last Acts II) – but it is quite possible and would not entail a change in the law. Patients have the right to refuse food and liquids. Doctors have a duty to relieve distressing symptoms. The main objection would be the bias of so many doctors in what they perceive to be ‘assisting’ a suicide. He would, however, need 24hr nursing care by a medical team familiar with the problems that can occur and how to cope with them.
Without allowing him access to either of these options, society is failing to give Nicklinson the means that an able-bodied person would have to take matters into their own hands. Means that it would be both humane and possibly even lawful for the courts to authorise.