In the Media

The right to be killed is not a matter for judges

PUBLISHED March 12, 2012

The High Court refused yesterday to strike out a legal action brought by Tony Nicklinson, a sufferer from "locked-in syndrome" who wants the law changed to allow someone to end his life without fear of punishment. The Ministry of Justice, in seeking to block Mr Nicklinson's case, had argued that only Parliament could change the law of murder. Mr Justice Charles has decided otherwise and the case will now be heard in the courts.

No one will lack sympathy for Mr Nicklinson, a 57-year-old severe stroke victim. He has been left mentally capable but completely paralysed. While he is not terminally ill, he describes his existence as "dull, miserable, demeaning, undignified and intolerable". Unable to kill himself, he wants the law changed so that, when his life becomes unbearable, a doctor can terminate his life without facing a murder charge. Mr Nicklinson's wife said yesterday that "the only way to relieve Tony's suffering is to kill him".

This sad case takes the ethical argument over assisted dying into new territory. Two years ago, following a campaign in the courts by Debbie Purdy, an MS sufferer, the Director of Public Prosecutions published a new policy on assisted suicide. He set out 16 public interest considerations that might prompt legal action under the Suicide Act 1961 against someone who helped a loved one kill themselves.

No one has yet been prosecuted. What was unsatisfactory about that clarification was that Parliament had no say in it.

That cannot be allowed to happen in relation to Mr Nicklinson. This is not a "right-to-die" case but one involving the "right to be killed". Changing the law relating to murder without the authority of Parliament is inconceivable - a point the Ministry of Justice sought to make in its attempt to strike out this case. It is indicative of the growth of judicial activism that a judge saw fit instead to give Mr Nicklinson and his supporters their day in court. While this will not result in a change in the law, it will allow those who support euthanasia a high-profile platform for their views.

Baroness Finlay, the former President of the Royal Society for Medicine, pointed out yesterday that the law as it stands is "proportionate and clear" in granting patients the right to refuse treatment so that they might die. Just as pertinently, she also gave warning that other patients could be left vulnerable if doctors were ever granted the right to kill. Such a change would make this country one of just a handful in the world where euthanasia is legal. Momentous moral issues such as this must always be decided by Parliament, not the judiciary.