Disasters should bring us together, and summon a community around the weakest person
Everyone will have heard by now of the poor man who has “locked-in” syndrome and who has petitioned the courts for the right to be killed by doctors without fear of punishment when he feels he has done with living. Tony Nicklinson, aged 57, suffered a massive stroke in 2005 that left him paralysed and only able to communicate by blinking. He is thus not able to commit suicide. He hates the fact that he is entirely helpless, is “fed up” with his life and says: “If I am lucky I will acquire a life-threatening illness such as cancer so that I can refuse treatment and say no to those who would keep me alive against my will.”
Every so often a story like this receives much publicity and the “right to die” (or in this case the “right to be killed”) lobby grows louder. Now High Court judge, Mr Justice Charles, is allowing Mr Nicklinson to seek a judicial review of his case, despite the fact that the Ministry of Justice had applied to the judge to strike out the case, arguing that only Parliament can change the law on murder, not the legal system.
Mr Nicklinson’s situation calls for sympathy and compassion. He describes his life now as “dull, miserable, demeaning, undignified and intolerable” and his wife has stated that “the only way to relieve Tony’s suffering is to kill him”. But as Baroness Finlay, former President of the Royal Society for Medicine, has pointed out, the law as it stands grants patients the right to refuse treatment so that they might die. She also warned that other patients would become vulnerable if doctors were granted the right to kill. It would make our country one of a few in the world where euthanasia is legal – not an appealing thought.
Even the Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson, with whom I strongly disagreed in my recent blog on “gendercide”, argues against Mr Nicklinson’s petition, quoting a cancer consultant who declared that “to terminate deliberately the life of a conscious person would be to forever alter and coarsen the relationship between doctor and patient. It would be like a death penalty with doctors as willing executioners.”
Belgium is one of those countries where people can legally be killed. My brother, James, who works in Brussels for L’Arche, an association where able and disabled people work together to change public perceptions of disability, tells me that life in Belgium is “daily diminished by euthanasia, well-intentioned or otherwise”. He says that many such deaths go unreported, as people would fear going to hospital otherwise. He knew an elderly man, Theo, who went to hospital for a trivial complaint and who “never came out again – his life was syringed out of him by people who probably thought they were doing him a favour. But we are the poorer for his absence.”
I also have a personal reason for not agreeing with Mr Nicklinson’s plea, grave though his situation is. It so happens that my brother, David, suffered a very serious fall last December. It has left him severely injured, unable to move or (as yet) to communicate, except to smile when his wife and family visit. His situation is not dissimilar to Mr Nicklinson’s – with one vital difference. He has always been deeply pro-life and opposed to euthanasia. For the last 27 years he has worked full-time for a Christian centre in Perth, Scotland, dedicated to bringing Christianity back to that country. He is surrounded by a loving Christian circle of support: his wife, his friends and his family. But what if he did not have that support or if euthanasia were to creep in by the back door, through the courts, as Mr Justice Charles seems to want? This thought makes me shudder.
The only response to cases like Mr Nicklinson’s, where sufferers and their families are in the grip of despair and see death as the only solution, is the Christian one: to show them, as L’Arche communities try to do and as my brother James explained, that “these seeming disasters should be seen as a wake-up call, summoning a community of friendship around the weakest person, in the realisation that we are not merely individuals but are interdependent on one another. This means that if one of us is touched by disaster, we are all touched. No man is an island. This is what mutual solidarity means, for weakness will come to us all in the end. And the amazing thing is that this can become a place of joy, a place that brings new life and new hope…”
I would love Mr Nicklinson and his family to know this message: there is an alternative to despair.