Joan Smith: Tony Nicklinson's legacy: his case will save lives

Share

When Tony Nicklinson died on Wednesday, there was widespread sympathy for a man who had been paralysed from the neck down. The previous week he had wept in front of TV cameras, devastated by the High Court's refusal to give him an assurance that anyone who helped him to die would not face a charge of murder. Photographs of Mr Nicklinson before his illness, looking healthy and tanned, offered a painful contrast with the helplessness he endured after a massive stroke in 2005. The case has redoubled calls for a change in the law on assisted dying.

Few people could witness Mr Nicklinson's plight and not be moved. But I was troubled by the images of his distress that circulated widely after he lost his case, and not just because they felt like an intrusion into private grief. There's a clear danger that ethical issues will get lost in this focus on a handful of tragic individuals; it's also worth noting that doctors, who would be called on actively to end lives if the law were to be changed, oppose a change in the law. Two months ago, at the BMA's annual conference, doctors reiterated their opposition to assisted dying.

They have good reasons. There is a huge difference between withdrawing medical treatment in terminal cases and actively helping someone to die, especially when the patient – as in many of these cases – is not actually dying. It's clear from the debate at the conference that many doctors don't want to be put in a position where they would be asked to kill people.

I'm sure Mr Nicklinson's family had his best interests at heart. But the debate about assisted dying is weirdly dissociated from the real world, in which relatives and carers often abuse elderly and disabled people. The frequency of domestic violence – and, more recently, "honour"-based violence – shows that the family is far from being the safe place campaigners imagine it to be. Husbands kill their wives, parents murder their children, and some relatives pressure the elderly into handing over money or changing their wills. Some families are loving but many are not, and even well-intentioned spouses and adult children get worn down by caring for a relative with huge physical and emotional needs.

People with debilitating but not immediately fatal conditions already have to deal with discomfort and loss. I'm not sure how doctors are supposed to differentiate between someone who genuinely wants to die and a situation in which they've been made to feel a burden on their family. Even "living wills" don't provide a definitive answer, because someone may feel very differently once a hypothetical fear becomes reality.

Lifting protection from millions of vulnerable people because of a small number of tragic cases is a drastic response. It also ignores the sound principle that extreme cases make bad law. It's perfectly possible for someone to be distressed and wrong, a fact that's been overlooked in the emotive discussion of the Nicklinson case.

politicalblonde.com; twitter.com/@polblonde

React Now

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

Senior Marketing Manager - Central London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (Campaigns, Offlin...

Head of Marketing - Acquisition & Direct Reponse Marketing

£90000 - £135000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Marketing (B2C, Acquisition...

1st Line Service Desk Analyst

£27000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client who are...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Huxley Associates

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Huxley Associates are currentl...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Norovirus the food poisoning bug that causes violent stomach flu  

A flu pandemic could decide next year’s election

Matthew Norman
J. Jayalalithaa gestures to her party supporters while standing on the balcony of her residence in Chennai. Former film star Jayalalithaa Jayaram is one of India's most colourful and controversial politicians  

The jailing of former film star Jayalalithaa Jayaram is a drama even Bollywood couldn’t produce

Andrew Buncombe
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style