A severely disabled man with locked-in syndrome will this week endeavour to change euthanasia laws by convincing three High Court judges that any doctor who helps him to die should not face criminal charges.
In a landmark case Tony Nicklinson is asking the court to extend the common law of ‘necessity’ to assisted suicide and murder so that he can be medically helped to die without the doctor risking prosecution.
Mr Nicklinson, 58, who has been able to move only his eyelids since suffering a catastrophic stroke in 2005, last night told The Independent that being able to choose when to die was his most fundamental human right.
Mr Nicklinson said he was “relishing” the battle but had “despaired” at the slowness of the legal challenge as he was simply seeking the same right to die that able bodied people were able to exercise independently.
The leading human rights lawyer Saimo Chahal, will argue that the government is in breach of Mr Nicklinson’s Article 8 right to ‘privacy, dignity and autonomy’, a right he cannot exercise independently because of severe disability.
In an interview conducted by email Mr Nicklinson said: “I do believe that it is a person's first human right to be able to determine when, where and how to end his own life. All this talk about a person's life being ‘a gift from god and only he can decide when a person's life can end’ is utter rubbish.
“I don't really care if you believe in god, Santa or the tooth fairy; it is okay up to a point but when believers insist that their way is the only way I get angry. What if you believe in a different faith or no faith? I object to being told what I can and cannot do by a faith I don't believe in (for the record I am an atheist). I feel that I am denied my most basic human right; I object to society telling me that I must live until I die of natural causes and I will do all I can to restore those rights.”
In a remarkable twist, one of the doctors who helped save Mr Nicklinson’s life in Athens in 2005 has expressed shock at his ongoing plight.
Speaking on tonight’s Dispatches programme, “Let our Dad Die”, neurologist Dr Stelios Doris will say: “Death is more normal than to stay alive in this condition. So when I was informed that he was still alive I was surprised and sad also. I wouldn’t like for even for my worst enemy to stay alive in this condition for so many years. “
He adds: “I think that we owe him. He’s paying for our mistakes in a way… We have not done medical mistakes but it’s a mistake that he survived.”
Mr Nicklinson said: “It's good that my situation for which, as part of the team that saved me he must take some responsibility, has made him think… I am sure that the quality of the life saved will feature more in the debate about assisted dying as more people are ‘victims’ of the life-at-all-costs policy. I have suggested from the beginning that doctors have no choice but to save a life but the person so saved should, after a reasonable period of time be given the option of assisted dying.”
He added: “The public appear to want something done to match the huge advances made by medical science; the politicians in Westminster are too scared of offending the church and other vested interests.”
Mr Nicklinson believes that his case has “rattled” religious and anti-euthanasia campaigners, who fear a victory for him would signal a slippery slope for elderly and disabled people, because it does not seek to fundamentally change the murder or suicide laws.
Instead, lawyers will argue that anyone who helps Mr Nicklinson die should be able to plead necessity as a defence because the alternative – forcing him to stay alive - is worse. Judges have developed common law over hundreds of years and so are perfectly entitled to extend it further as they see legally fit.
Talking to The Independent his wife Jane Nicklinson accused those opposed of “scaremongering” and insisted that her husband’s fight to die would not cascade into elderly people being forced to accept early death.
Mr Nicklinson last week became a Twitter sensation after being encouraged by his family to use the social networking site to express his strong opinions on life, death, politics and rugby, something he has desperately missed since the stroke left him physically incapable but mentally sharp.
He is “amazed” and “flattered” at the response, having attracted 13,000 followers in four days.
“It has made me feel more connected to the world at large but even though it is an interesting exercise in human interaction, I will still know what to do when the time comes. In other words, being one of the twitterati is insufficient to make me change my mind [about dying]. Perhaps I'll be the first person to say goodbye on Twitter.”