Christina Patterson: Tony Nicklinson's agonising plight shouldn't change the law

If the law that makes him sad makes most people safer, then that sadness may be a price worth paying


He can't really eat. He can't put a piece of food in his mouth, or run his tongue over it to savour the taste, or smack his lips, or chew. He can't swallow, unless someone puts a spoon on his tongue to make his throat contract, or dabs his lips to make the muscles move. He can't speak. He can't laugh. He can't raise an eyebrow. He can't scratch an itch. But he can cry. Tony Nicklinson can't control the muscles in his face, or the way it sometimes turns into a mask of grief, or wipe the strings of saliva that sometimes hang from his lips, but his tear ducts seem to be working just fine.

Before the headache that hit him in Athens seven years ago, everything in his body worked fine. He jumped, with parachutes, out of planes. He leapt, in harnesses, off cliffs. He was handsome, and successful, and happy, and fit. He loved people, and parties, and fun. Now he's carried in a hoist from a bed to a chair. "This is my home," he said to the TV cameras on Channel 4's Dispatches on Monday. "It's also," he said, "my prison."

The headache in Athens was a stroke. The doctor who saw him didn't think he'd survive. Now he wishes he hadn't. He loves his wife, and his daughters, but he can't hug them, or kiss them, or even speak to them, except by blinking at letters connected to a computer, and now there's only one thing in the world he really wants. What he really wants is to be allowed to die.

It's what his family wants, too. "There are people out there," said his wife Jane, whose love for her husband shines out of her eyes, "some in a worse condition than him, who have a full and meaningful life, which is great for them." But life for him, she said, wasn't. Life for him, she said, was "just not worth living".

The trouble is that Tony Nicklinson can't die. He can't, unless he decides to starve himself, which might take months, end his life unless he gets someone else to help. Which, under British law, would be murder. "In Britain," he told Lord Falconer, who recently produced a report on assisted dying, "everyone is legally allowed to commit suicide, but I am denied the right only because I am so severely disabled. How," he asked, "do you defend this discrimination against me?"

It's a question he, or rather his lawyer on his behalf, also raised in the High Court yesterday. His life, said his barrister, was "dull, miserable, demeaning, undignified and intolerable". He wasn't seeking, he told the judges, to "introduce an all-encompassing new regime legalising euthanasia and assisted suicide". What he wanted, he said, was for the court to allow "the common law defence of necessity" to a doctor who helped him die. What he wanted, in effect, was for the law to answer the other question he asked Lord Falconer: "How would you feel if it was you?"

What he wanted, in other words, was for us to answer a question almost nobody can answer. Those of us who can still move, and talk, and laugh, and sing, can't know what it's like to lie in bed at night and not be able to move a single part of your body except an eyelid. Some of us may have felt, at times, that being dead might be less hard than being alive. Those of us who have might bless whatever it was that stopped us from doing anything about it and hope that something similar might stop other people from doing anything about it, too. But most of us don't know what it's like to feel you want to end your life but can't. And most of us would look at the tears trickling down Tony Nicklinson's gaunt cheeks, and at the wife and daughters who want what he wants, and feel, for his sake, and for their sake, that we want it, too.

But the law isn't about how we feel. The law isn't about how you feel if you were once healthy and fit and happy, and now aren't. The law, as Lord Falconer said on that Dispatches, is the same for everybody. "If people want to kill themselves," he said, it's an "entirely private matter", but "they can't kill somebody else". The law, as the disability rights campaigner Kevin Fitzpatrick also said on the programme, is meant to offer protection. "When you develop a society where some people judge that other people's lives are not worth living," he said, "that's the Rubicon."

If you're disabled, and have decided that you don't want to live, but that the only way to end your life is by starving (which you can still do, though it won't be very pleasant) then it's very, very sad for you. It's sad, and hard, and frustrating, and unfair. But quite a few things in life are sad, and hard, and frustrating, and unfair. And if the law that makes you sad makes most people safer then maybe your sadness, and the sadness of the people who love you, is the price we all have to pay.

And maybe, if you're sad and frustrated and angry, and tell newscasters that you never look at your family and think you can't bear to leave them, because you can't bear to "tolerate so many indignities", you might think about the tweet you sent the 26,834 followers you gained since joining Twitter on Sunday. "What joy," it said, "it is to be loved." And maybe you'll look at that word "joy" and think that the good thing about still being alive is that you can still change your mind.

Twitter: @queenchristina_

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: Outgunned by a lack of military knowledge

Guy Keleny
Ukip leader Nigel Farage in Tiny Tim’s tea shop while canvassing in Rochester this week  

General Election 2015: What on earth happened to Ukip?

Matthew Norman
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions