"He was a great character," said his wife. "Bit of a wally, to be honest... but everyone loved him," said his daughter. "Life and soul of the party," said someone else. All of the tributes at the beginning of Let Our Dad Die seemed to be in the past tense, which was odd because their subject, Tony Nicklinson, is actually still alive. Sort of, anyway.
Because Tony suffered a catastrophic stroke while on a business trip to Greece and now has locked-in syndrome. He feels some doubt that this is a life at all, and is going to court to secure the right to have someone end it for him. His opponents take the view that that would be a dangerous precedent and are equally determined to stop him.
His wife, Jane, has a certain talent for phrasing the matter in ways designed to alarm those with conscientious objections to his proposal. "We're asking, in circumstances like this, for murder to be legal," she said, disdaining the conventional vocabulary of "euthanasia" or "mercy killing". The problem being that the condition that makes Tony's life so distressing to him also bars him from access to assisted suicide. And Jane can't see the sense in that: "It's like abortion," she added later. "You know when that happened everyone was up in arms about it, but now it's just commonplace, isn't it?"
Which is exactly what those opposed to Tony's request fear. Two representatives of that view went to visit him to debate the matter (Tony speaks through a voice synthesiser activated by the movement of his eyes). The first was Lord Falconer, who chaired an independent commission on assisted dying and advised against allowing doctors to take someone's life with the patient's consent. Their conversation was civil, but might not have been if Tony had been in any position to reply more rapidly. After he'd pointedly asked Falconer what he would advise him to do given his situation, his Lordship condescendingly replied: "You might think about becoming a member of the English bar." Fortunately for Falconer, I don't think Tony's machine has obscenities pre-loaded.
The second visitor was Kevin Fitzpatrick, a disability-rights campaigner, who opposes legal euthanasia for fear that it will increase the pressure on severely disabled people to take this route out. It's an argument that deserves a hearing, but he almost immediately ran into trouble when challenged by Tony over the fact that disability discrimination is exactly what he now faces. While less severely paralysed people can take the final step themselves, Tony has to be helped to die. So didn't Kevin's position condemn him to a life of mental anguish? "I'm not condemning you," replied Kevin. "I'm not responsible for your stroke at all." It wouldn't be convincing argument coming from a pub landlord reluctant to fit a wheelchair ramp, and it wasn't any more convincing here. Tony, to the best of his ability, told Kevin to get lost. I did find myself wondering why, if Tony can express himself through software and eye movements, he couldn't also press the button on some mechanism that would end his life painlessly. But I suspect that he doesn't want to slip out by means of a dubious loophole in the law. I also think he's entitled to a choice the rest of us don't have to go to court for fight for, and that having it might actually extend his life rather than shorten it.
You fear for the future of documentaries such as Kate Blewett's Ukraine's Forgotten Children in a multi-channel, iPlayer, digital recorder world. Watching is an ordeal, and escape is all too easy. I'll catch up later, we tell ourselves, and then never quite do. If so, you will have missed a brave and compassionate bit of film-making, and a faint but deeply moving silver lining too. The ice is breaking up and human kindness can prevail.
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