Britain's murder laws could be radically reinterpreted if a severely disabled man succeeds in his legal battle to allow a doctor to kill him without the risk of prosecution.
Tony Nicklinson, a father of two from Wiltshire who once led an active life and loved extreme sports, like skydiving, is now trapped in his own body after a stroke left him paralysed from the neck down. A victim of "locked-in syndrome", he is unable to kill himself and instead wants a doctor to be able end his life without being prosecuted for murder. Yesterday the High Court gave him permission to proceed with a full hearing on his case, including if a "common law defence of necessity" could be used to protect his loved ones or doctors from prosecution if they helped him end his life.
In a harrowing statement submitted to the High Court, Mr Nicklinson described how his life had become "intolerable" following a stroke in Athens six years ago that has left him completely dependent on others and only able to communicate through blinking. The ex-engineer, who used to live with his family in Dubai, said: "I cannot scratch if I itch, I cannot pick my nose if it is blocked and I can only eat if I'm fed like a baby – only I won't grow out of it, unlike the baby. I have no privacy or dignity left."
He added: "Am I grateful that the Athens doctors saved my life? No, I am not. If I had my time again, and knew then what I know now, I would not have called the ambulance but let nature take its course." The case is the latest "right to die" plea that has come before the courts amid a continued unwillingness by Parliament to grapple with the issue of whether euthanasia should be legalised in certain circumstances.
Giving Mr Nicklinson permission to argue his case at a five-day hearing this summer, Justice William Charles said the 53-year-old father recognised he was "inviting the court to cross the Rubicon" in deciding if and when murder is ever justifiable. The Ministry of Justice tried to have the case thrown out, arguing that only Parliament could decide whether someone could be legally killed.
However, Mr Nicklinson's legal team insisted the current common law definition of necessity might allow the judiciary to rule whether there were certain circumstances when someone could "terminate or assist the termination of Mr Nicklinson's life".
Justice Charles said their case "was arguable" and therefore should be submitted for judicial review at a later date. In his heartfelt statement to the court, Mr Nicklinson painted a grim picture of his life, stating that he actually hoped to "acquire a life-threatening illness such as cancer" so that he could then at least refuse treatment and be allowed to die.
Anti-euthanasia groups have expressed concern that any legalisation of assisted dying would put vulnerable people at risk. But Mr Nicklinson said, unlike those who are of frail mind, he was not vulnerable and knew what he wanted. "By all means protect the vulnerable... just don't include me," he said. "I'm not vulnerable. I don't need help or protection from death or those who would help me. I'm asking for my right to choose when and how to die to be respected."