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Tony Nicklinson and his family should know there is an alternative to despair

Disasters should bring us together, and summon a community around the weakest person

By on Friday, 16 March 2012

Nicklinson, 57, suffered a massive stroke in 2005 which left him paralysed from the neck down and unable to speak (PA photo)

Nicklinson, 57, suffered a massive stroke in 2005 which left him paralysed from the neck down and unable to speak (PA photo)

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.

  • Paul Halsall

    Look, here is the reality.

    People who are this disabled crap and pee.  They cannot do otherwise. While fully conscious they, each day, have to deal with relatives having to treat them like a baby – cleaning up after them.That is for many people, and would be for me, excruciatingly awful.  It might be better if professional carers did it, but it would still be awful.

    There is a reason we close  bathroom doors when we do what is required.

    To ask some one to face 10-20-30 years of this sort of attention is just not on.  People in the past in this situation would simply have passed on.  I see no reason why we should used modern medicine to torture people.

  • Tom Calarco

    It has left him severely injured, unable to move or (as yet) to communicate, except to smile when his wife and family visit … 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.

    Please tell me, how has he been able to work with such a condition? 

  • Jeannine

    Francis Phillips, this is 1 of your finest essays. It shows that you understand the message of Jesus Christ. Keep writing to soften a few hearts. 

  • John Byrne

    Francis Phillips writes:
    “…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.”

    The Ministry of Justice’s argument begs the question.

    Those in favour of assisted death would say that it is not murder.
    We all know what murder is – we hear of murders, often several times every week.
    Assisted death granted to the suffering terminally ill is obviously very different.

  • Jacquelineparkes

    Obviously Francis meant he worked for 27 years before his accident . L” Arche teaches us real compassion & life where people are loved & important not for what they do but who they are – loved.

  • Lazarus

    So ‘the reality’ is that we should kill anyone who is incontinent?

  • Lazarus

    1) It seems to be murder according to the current legal definition. So it’s quite reasonable for the Ministry of Justice to suggest that this is a question about changing a currently clear law and thus for  Parliament rather than a question for the courts to clarify.

    2) Morally, looks like murder to me. (It’s intentional killing and it’s wrong.) Murders may be done from all sorts of different motives: doesn’t make them right.

  • Paul Halsall

    No. but we should appreciate why people brought up to be private and particular about bodily functions would feel tortured and humiliated by the daily indignity imposed by modern medicine.

  • Johanne

    So, If I understand the Catholic Church’s stance, they are saying, “the alternative to choosing to do with your life as you wish is to believe in our magical fairy tale about a Jewish noble who was campaigning for the throne of Israel’s really being a man-god who conquered death for us all. Then, when you believe our story, you’ll get to spend the rest of your life pretending to be happy for the beneifit of our sanctimony. Oh, and your wife and relatives whose lives will be ruined, will have to pretend to be happy, too. Our sanctimony knows no bounds.”

    Really, I was baptized and confirmed Catholic when I was too young to know better. Is it too late to have myself excommunicated? Seriously, the Catholic Church has shown itself to be resolutely anti-choice in all matters that relate to personla freedom and which DO NO HARM to society (quite the opposite, in the case of birth control and freedom of choice, which have been shown to emanicpate women and lower crime rates).

    I’d excommunicate myself today if I felt it was worth my time, but my schedule’s a liitle packed. First week in April looks good…

  • Johanne

    Not true. States have all kinds of reasons to allow and even compel people to murder under certain circumstances. War is but an example.

    If it is right in those circumstances, when the murdered person does not want to die, how can it be wrong when the murdered person begs it of us?

  • Johanne

    Why, the Church itself has a history of murdering people to control society. It seems, in light of this, that the Church only wishes to disallow this euthanasia as another, more insidious method of control.

  • James H

     Euthanasia does no harm?

    That’s an amazing statement. Killing doesn’t hurt anyone? Right…

  • James H

     ” the Church itself has a history of murdering people to control society”.

    Absolutely – we should live in a society free of all religion, where everything is always warm and cuddly, where science progresses by leaps and bounds, and where the politicians are always trustworthy.

    It’s been done before: the results were a murder rate that defies belief.

  • Julian

    And you are quite happy to impose your dogma against the explicit wishes of a suffering individual?  

    If free choice of an individual is to be subjugated by the dogma and doctrine of another , there really isn’t  much hope for personal freedom or freedom of association, is there?

  • Anonymous

    Which society was that?

  • Enterthedome

    When was the last time you died, James?

  • Anonymous

    Life is full of suffering, Paul.

  • Lazarus

    Ah the cunning of us Catholics! First we murder people to get control. Now we try and stop murder to get control. Is there no end to our perfidy…?!

  • Lazarus

    Which of my claims isn’t true? (I take it from what you’ve said you’ve accepted 1) and are denying 2).)

    Killing in war is right under the conditions specified by just war theory.In short, it’s a regrettable necessity to defend life.

    No such necessity exists in the case of euthanasia. Indeed, its existence causes great social harm such as the breakdown of trust between medical practitioners and patients, quite apart from the issue of deliberate killing of the innocent.

  • Lazarus

    Well, I’m quite happy to impose my well thought out and philosophically supported understanding of ethics to prevent doctors from deliberately killing patients, most certainly. 

  • Anonymous

    Many have said that man is a rationalising animal not a rational one. That seems especially true of believers.

    So it is well thought out that your beliefs when they disagree with others is necessarily correct? Perhaps you might consider that freedom of choice, lack of tyranny and sheer enjoyment of life are important as well. But you see the difference. If you want to suffer because someone indoctrinated you at an early age, I will blame that child abuser and challenge you on your beliefs, what I will never do, is force you to change those beliefs, no matter how deluded I consider you to be. But you wish to impose your delusions on others because somebody told you, completely without evidence that some entity that appears completely incomprehensible, invisible and ineffectual tells you this is true. Unfortunately others with a similar delusion but whose particular child abuser has told them something different believes you are wrong and also wants to impose their delusions on you. This is a major cause of conflict. It is so easy to kill others and say it is in the name of a particular god. The fact you see nothing wrong in this but at exactly the same time want to stop somebody who is so unhappy with life they wish to finish it, is not rational.

  • daclamat

     And the amazing thing is that this can become a place of joy, a place that brings new life and new hope…”

    Mr Nicklinson doesn’t agree.  Keep your lollipops and smarties for yourself. He doesn’t want a wake up call. He wants to be able to call it a day.  He doesn’t want to be interdependent or any other pious platitude you can think up for him. Dona ei requiem, when wants it, not when you think it’s good for him

  • Scyptical Chymist

    Looking through these comments and assuming that most are posted by those who are Catholics,  then truly the Church has a problem since most seem to support euthanasia in at least some circumstances. Truly the appalling state in which Mr Nicklinson finds himself is a tragedy for him and his family. No one outside this circle can truly experience the anguish and the powerlessness felt by those who love him and no one can condemn him or his family for wishing an end to his anguish.  However Catholics believe that it is wrong for the state or anyone else to take life under these circumstances and if one does not hold to this view should not consider himself/herself  as  a Catholic. We are taught that despair is the greatest sin, the ultimate rejection of God’s mercy. Mr Nicklinson probably has not heard this teaching so we cannot condemn him for his wish even though we believe it to be very wrong. However nor can we encourage him to go through with his wish by sanctioning euthanasia by law. As Catholics, we must hold firm to our belief in the overwhelming mercy of God no matter what happens and no matter what difficulties it seems to pose.

  • buckingham88

    This whole thread,particularly yours,Paul,has become unusually obtuse.The biggest problem for the handicapped,particularly the physically handicapped ,is to be accepted for who they are and not be treated as objects of despair or people who are to be patronised.One of our children was resuscitated at birth and ended up with quadraplegic spasticity.The first time I wheeled her into K Mart one woman rushed away covering her face and crying,another plucked a flower pot and put in on her tray as a gift,a bit of a problem as I had to pay for it.The biggest problem for the disabled is the exteme ways that our society wants to “deal’ with the ‘problem’.In the case here cited it looks as if his community support has collapsed and he feels totally valueless.After all,if you are English ,you were always told to be a useful boy.Our child ended up with Croans disease and still suffers after a nine month stint in hospital.Many would say ‘resources are wasted’ here,why bother wiping her bottom for 26 years,or being available 24/7,but then what sort of people do you really want around you when you are sick?Because a suffering man wants a doctor to kill him,why then put everyone else at risk of the same fate?Since when was it good medicine to treat disease and depression by killing the patient?
     About two years ago there was a similar case in Australia, lets call it the Christopher Reeves type syndrome.In both the neck was severed in a high spinal injury.In the superman case no stone was turned to try and find a cure.He was feted here in Sydney by the premier and declared that any therapy,including the “harvesting of embryos’ was licit to find the cure.The other Christopher petitioned the courts to have his feeding tube disconnected.When given this power he declined to use it and had personal support from someone who cared.He commenced writing his story, had a new lease of life only to succumb to inevitable pneumonia ,and died in pallation.When Euthenasia was briefly law in the Northern Territory ,a long suffering cancer patient was duly killed off, only on post mortem found to be free of cancer and so probably a misdiagnosis.The euthenasia law was overturned after Commonwealth intervention,thus saving others in such a vulnerable and precarious position.
    And it is a true slippery slope.The campaigners here in Australia,want euthenasia in for tough cases,then introduce it for the cognative compromised,such as your mother or father with dementia then ,of course,disabled children post birth.This patient needs support,love care and purpose.But then isnt that what we all need in our human state.

  • ms Catholic state

    Knowing as I do someone who is paralysed on one side following a stroke….and who has never even contemplated assisted suicide but is determined to live life to the fullest possible….I don’t understand this family.  It’s all a matter of outlook and mindset.  And sadly some people just don’t want to struggle in life.  Sorry but that attitude is impractical and negative…..and that’s putting it kindly.

  • John Byrne

    Lazarus says: “It  [assisted death for the terminally ill who are in great suffering and who wish it] seems to be murder according to the current legal definition”.

    Yes exactly, the present Law makes it seem to be. That’s why the law must be changed – since assisted dying in the above-described situation is obviously very different from murder.

  • Timcashman50

    I agree with your views Francis that the road could lead to total fear of hospital and to see the doctor as executioner rather than a medium of healing. Tim cashman

  • Timcashman50

    A brilliant essay and a chilling one to view hospital and doctors as places and professionals of execution rather than mediums of possible healing

  • daclamat

    “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 find this kind of guff disgusting. Belgium is not a country where people legally may be killed. Mendacity obscures the important point that people who don’t share your religious beliefs, of whom thank God I am happily oned, may prefer to bring down the curtain on an existence which has become unbearable. Euthanesia in my country, Switzerland, is illegal. It is unlawful to kill. Bringing one’s own life to an end is not. The association Exit, under very stringent controls, provides the individual who so desires with the means to achieve this. Not a service revolver, a railway timetable, or a bridge with a low parapet, or a washing line, or even an evil fairy with a syring, but a sedative a person may take, which induces a deep sleep and the painless arrest of respiratory and cardiac functions. After the event, there is a a detailed police enquiry.
    Catholics do themselves a mis-service by using intemperate lanaguage to besmirch the integrity of people who take this option and decrying the motives of those who assist and accompany them in their decision. A rational and courteous debate takes place, and we have a system of popular consultation – the referendum – which inevitably precedes any extension of the practice.  May a person in hospital or a retirement home have access to the services of Exit? There was wide discussion on the efffect this might have on other patients, residents and their families, not to mention medical, nursing and auxiliary staff.
    I’m convinced that this is preferable to hurling insults and anathema. Is it too much to expect a journal which prides itself on being “catholic” might provide a serence forum for discussion

  • daclamat

    Are you talking about people who use  incontinent language or wilfully distort what people actually say? I was recently in intensive care, with tubes and wires in places I never previously knew existed. A feeding tube inserted down the back of one’s nose, a urethral catheter, manual evacuation, I found unbearable, resisted and was sedated. I’m not sure how long I could bear this benevolent tortue consciously. As for indignity, it was probably felt more by the nurses, ministering angels. Eternally grateful, I carry a card donating my remains to their teaching hospital. “What a lovely idea. Thank you so much. A lot of people give us boxes of chocolates or a basket of fruit. Are you sure your wife won’t mind. Or your son?”
    “You can ask them if you like.  Any way, it’s not for tomorrow is it?”
    “We’ll do our best!”

  • Oconnord

     The poor man is wishing for cancer. How intolerable can his life be if he wishes for what many of us think as our worst nightmare? 

    How brutally do you need to rely on a religious belief that only a ravaging illness like cancer could grant a human succour?

    His family are willing to accept the loss and pain, but strangers aren’t?

    I know I wouldn’t have the courage or fortitude that Mr. Nicklinson and his family have shown. 
    I admit I am a coward compared to him.

  • Honeybadger

    You clearly haven’t a bleddy clue about dealing with disability.

  • Honeybadger

    Yikes! God help people with bladder disorders, crohn’s and colitis!

  • Honeybadger

    You are a 24 carat eejit!

  • Honeybadger

    Oh, shut your biscuithole and give your anal orifice a breath of air!

  • Honeybadger


  • Honeybadger

    Look who’s talking!

  • Anonymous

    No can’t be that one, because it was created in the name of your particular god.

  • Lazarus

    Catholic moral teaching is based on natural law (ie philosophical reflection on human nature). By all means try to point out where and why it is wrong, but you seem completely unaware that the heady mix of handwaving and insult you’re indulging in, however satisfying to you personally, does not amount to argument.

  • Anonymous

    You seem to think that using grand sounding terms such as ‘natural law’ and ‘philosophical reflection’ mean anything other than what you are told by others, then you’d better think again. Your so called reflections include misery, death, discrimination and oppression for others. Some reflections, some philosophy.

    Throughout this thread are the real hand wavers who are desperately trying to square the circle. Anybody who believes in freedom of choice must conclude that anybody who decides to end their own life has a right to do so. You do not think they have that right because of what you were told as a child. That is called indoctrination. To try to change assisted suicide, which it is, into murder, which it isn’t, is hand waving. 

    And while you are on about insults, the real insult is somebody having the arrogance to decide on another’s fate from teachings derived from a document which has been politically edited, mistranslated and was mostly a series of fictional stories in the first place.

  • Lazarus

    Very difficult to know where to start when you’re talking to someone who is too busy chewing a carpet to make much sense. But let’s try…

    1) I assume in your final paragraph. the ‘document’ you’re referring to is the Bible. Since the basis of Catholic ethics is not primarily the Bible, your point here is irrelevant.

    2) On the use of ‘grand sounding’ phrases, it’s difficult to know what to say. You could try looking up, say, ‘natural law’ in some introductory (but non-religious source’) such as the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy  which might help convince you that the term isn’t empty. I’m afraid this is just one of those areas where ignorance or simply pretending something doesn’t exist doesn’t actually make it go away.

    3) Finally, on the thought that Catholicism brings ‘misery,death and oppression’ for others, it is rather your attempt to undermine the ethos of the medical profession which is more likely to lead to that. Both my claim and your claim are predictions about factual circumstances and in principle open to further, rational discussion. Your simplistic dismissal of any such attempt at reasoning in favour of simple  assertions of your own rightness are evidence of what happens when one abandons belief in a God who is wisdom and in a Church which has embraced the philosophical methodologies of Graeco-Roman thought.

  • Demetrius

    I hope you will some day experience the joys of complete paralysis. Think of it as a gift from your beloved God. Can’t have no negativity here.

  • Marcella Carmen C.

    Excellent article; the author’s brother is also paralysed but his faith gives him a different viewpoint

  • Anonymous

    The US state of Oregon has a very good assisted dying law. It really bridges the gap between allowing something like Dignitas – which I would argue is much too far, and of having no provision whatsoever.

    In fact it is so well safeguarded that Mr Nicklinson here would not qualify, because you must be less than 6 months left to live as certified by a doctor, and it looks like Mr. Nicklinson has much longer.

    The provision in the law only allows the patient to suggest the idea, and it must be orally and in writing. Participation by physicians, pharmacists, and health care providers is voluntary.

    It has only been taken up by a minuscule proportion of the Oregon population, and it cannot either be argued that it is a ‘slippery slope’ in this situation, as the law has been unchanged since its inception in 1994 – nearly 20 years ago.

    I hope people take a read (particularly before commenting back too), because to me it really seems to have very few faults, and very good safe-guarding. 

  • IsaacKwesiocran

    Luk 10:19  Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. nicklison be healed in JESUS name…..shalom

  • buckingham88

     Why,if you think it OK to suicide as a basic human right,wait 6 months?Its not logical.The debate in Australia has gone much further than this.Once the Oregon suicide provision came into being in any British Commonwealth juristiction,the Greens and large elements of the local socialist left would amend it over time to fit their plan.That is the party platform of the Greens in Australia.They hold the balance of power and determined the outcome of the last federal election.

  • paulsays

     I didn’t mention human-rights whatsoever, nor suicide as a human right. 

    The law I’m talking about is suicide of sorts, but only under a very exacting situation. It is certainly not akin to Dignitas, or to jumping off a bridge – which is suicide in its fullest sense. These people have 6 months left to live after all. 

    In terms of the Green Party, well I know a number of Greens, and I know about the party to some degree, and I don’t remember them advocating anything more extreme than what I talked about. I also don’t think anything too extreme would be popular with the public either (electorally speaking).

    I’d be interested to here about what the Australian Green’s are advocating in Australia, so if you get the time, maybe you could drop me a link?

    Anyway in the UK the Greens simply are not players, they are influential to some degree, but they have no power in parliament. They hold only 1 seat out of 650 in our Parliament.

  • americanviewpoint

    Say a person wants to go for a drive. Or maybe wants to go skydiving. Maybe he wants to become a wrestler. No one objects to that because we all think, “Who cares? Let him do what he wants. It’s his life.” So why is it different with assisted suicide? Mr. Nicklinson wants to end his life. Why are we getting in his way? The man wishes for cancer. Cancer! How many people do you know that begs for cancer to take their lives? Mr. Nicklinson should have every right to pick and chose how his life is lived. If he chooses death, so be it. Let us all step aside and let our own personal opinions to the back burner, so that he is happy. What would you do if someone told you how to live your life and what you are to do with your own body?

  • Nicklinson

    I am fed up with other people telling me how to run my life. None of you know what I have to put up with every day and yet some of you want me to tolerate my circumstances until I die of natural causes. Meanwhile you remain unaffected by what you say – how convenient, you do all the pontificating and I do all the suffering. By all means voice your opinion but that’s all it is – your opinion. You do not have a monopoly of the truth as most of the god-squad would have you believe. Society gave me two choices, (1) live like this until I die of natural causes or (2) starve to death. What was I to do? I chose to ask the Court to let me have a pain-free death. Wouldn’t you?

  • moosearama

    What degenerates you catholics are. On the one side there’s Declamat detailing how there isn’t euthanasia in Switzerland, how there isn’t a right to kill in Belgium, but a right to end one’s life, and how controlled it is by people with a clear sense of right and wrong. Then there’s something called the catholic corporation, talking moral so it can be immoral, uttering nonsensical gibberish like ”it’s a sin to be in despair because you deny god’s mercy’, acting all mystical about mysticism so it doesn’t have to be mystical, given that mysticism is about not being sure about the universe.

    Catholics and christians couldn’t be farer from natural law if they tried. Here they have a big-ass corporation, themselves, that pays no taxes and until the industrial revolution owned all the land of the western world, a multinational brand that we’re better off comparing with Nike and Costa Rica. When inquired as to whether they know where all the money goes, they of course don’t have a clue, the Vatican City Bank remains comparable to the Cook Islands in its predilection for untaxed money. And I’m not against taxed money, my point is all their propositions or as Saussure would more adequately define as signifiers are constructed by legal means, by property they owned.

    Catholics of course tried to indoctrinate me at age 14 and earlier, adding me statistically to their dataset of 90% catholics in the world at an age no one is allowed to vote. They attempted to teach me they were all that was nice without of course describing the 20th century’s culture wars. Then when I got severely injured my scumbag catholic parents denied I was ill, because catholicism is just another way to get away with materialism by preaching mysticism. You ”religious” people got to do some reading on the ”linguistic turn”, and stop pandering to your masturbatory urges and childish sophistry,  while bluffing your way through adulthood in a corporation that panders to bluffed parenthood by appealing to the few signifiers it has left.