'Locked-in' stroke victim asks for ruling on mercy killing

Law Editor,Robert Verkaik
Tuesday 20 July 2010 00:00 BST

Tony Nicklinson is a man who once loved the sound of his own voice. His wife describes him as "very opinionated" and his two daughters say he was never happier than when he was quizzing them over the suitability of their boyfriends.

But five years ago a paralysing stroke left Mr Nicklinson locked inside his body, able only to communicate by moving his eyes and head.

Today he wants the right to die, but without exposing his wife or daughters to prosecution for murder.

In a High Court test case, to be heard later this year, his family will challenge Keir Starmer QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), over his policy on "mercy killings".

The Nicklinson case goes beyond the debate about assisted suicide because Mr Nicklinson, a former rugby player and corporate manager, cannot perform the final physical act of taking his own life.

In a heart-felt statement read by his wife, Jane, Mr Nicklinson made it very clear yesterday why he had come to his decision. "I am a 56-year-old man who suffered a catastrophic stroke in June 2005 whilst on a business trip to Athens, Greece. It left me paralysed below the neck and unable to speak. I need help in almost every aspect of my life. I cannot scratch if I itch. I cannot pick my nose if it is blocked and I can only eat if I am fed like a baby."

Mr Nicklinson, from Melksham in Wiltshire, complains that his condition means he is stripped of his privacy and dignity. And he wishes the Greek doctors who treated him for his stroke had not saved his life. "If I had my time again, and knew then what I know now, I would have not called the ambulance but let nature take its course."

Speaking to The Independent, Jane Nicklinson described the torment that the family has endured. "He has got his own special bed and sits in his chair," says Mrs Nicklinson. "In the morning he goes on the computer and in the afternoon and evening he watches television. He used to go into the garden, but if a fly lands on him he can't brush it off him so he stays inside."

The family are not surprised by his decision. Mrs Nicklinson said: "Very early on he said he did not want to live like this but he said he would give it time because people said he may adapt – but he has given it a go for five years. Right from the day it happened I knew he would come to this decision because of the kind of person he is."

Now Mrs Nicklinson wants clarity in the law. "He realises that if I help him to die I could be done for murder and there is no way he would allow me to do that no matter how much pain and suffering he is going through. I'm not that brave and I have got my girls to think of."

In a letter to the DPP, Saimo Chahal of Bindmans, has asked for written guidance. "Mr and Mrs Nicklinson wish to know whether Mrs Nicklinson will be prosecuted for murder in the event that she were to assist her husband to end his life by taking active steps. There is, however, no guidance available setting out what factors you consider relevant in deciding whether it is in the public interest to bring a prosecution for murder in cases of 'mercy-killing' or euthanasia."

The family hopes the case will build on the guidance on assisted suicide issued after Debbie Purdy, who suffers from MS, won her legal challenge in the House of Lords.

If the law can't protect Mrs Nicklinson from prosecution she says she will consider other options, including the possibility of withdrawing hydration and nutrition or travelling to Switzerland. "We have found a GP who is sympathetic and will help with pain and suffering but of course no one will tell you how far they can do until the actual time.

"He [Mr Nicklinson] doesn't want to go to Switzerland. When the time comes he wants to be in his own home with people who care about him."

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