A clichéd way to start to this article would be to say that Tony Nicklinson was a normal man, a normal husband, a normal father, a normal ex-rugby player who got sent to a private hell that no one should have to go through. Unfortunately tragedy can strike that randomly.
In 2005, a stroke caused him to become paralysed from the neck down. Locked-in syndrome forced him to communicate through a computer programme that tracked his eyeball movements and converted them into robotic-sounding sentences.
On 16 August 2012, his long fight was lost when the High Court refused his appeals for the ‘right to die’. Six days later he died from pneumonia, induced by his refusal to eat. His precarious life ended without the dignity he so simply demanded.
He had a lot to say and the will to say it. For seven years he had been fighting for the right to end his life with dignity without this leading to the prosecution of his wife or any doctor who would inject him with a lethal dose of drugs.
What denied Nicklinson his final will? Was it some kind of religious sensitivity? Maybe the legal heads behind the court decision saw it as a beautiful ode to how precious life his.
I can’t help but feel confused when the UK has a legal and social machine, which screams ‘Outrage!’ and ‘Shame!’ when the government and the courts try to intrude on press freedom to publish naked pictures of royal heirs on the front page, but ‘no can do’ when it concerns such an elementary personal right, such as putting an end to your own life.
I’m not condoning suicide, it’s important to clarify the distinction between an understandable death and something avoidable, something the High Courts seem to miss completely.
Over his last two months Niklinson opened a Twitter account, which gathered more than 50,000 followers, including myself, where he conducted debates, answering any question asked. Some of his answers were made in an ironic and humorous way, showing himself to the world not as a medical case but as a human being.
He would change from saucy jokes and complaints to details of his monotonous everyday routine. He explained his refusal to go to Switzerland and use the expensive Dignitas organisation to end his life. It went against the principle he wanted to defend.
Nicklinson considered his life ‘dull, miserable, demeaning and intolerable’. That wasn’t caused by any unemployment situation or recent heartbreak. Nicklinson had to sit at home, strapped into a specially adapted wheelchair. He would have to be lifted from his bed and hoisted to it. He would then watch several hours of television while pictures of a young athletic version of himself that hung on the walls beside him. His only means of communication was blinking to a computer or to a letter board, spelling every word he wanted.
His daughters couldn’t communicate with the same father they used to know and had to watch his, once strong, joy-to-live fade away. As they said, ‘Life should be about quality and happiness, not just for the sake of it.’
I interviewed various religious persons for a related article, trying to understand the Buddhist, Christian, Muslim and Hindu views on life termination. With the exception of the Buddhists the answer was that life is God’s gift and too precious to be terminated by the recipient of such an amazing gift without God’s consent.
I can’t forget how a Lithuanian priest said – with ease – that a life without dignity wasn’t a valid reason to commit suicide since, ‘when a 12-year-old breaks up with his first girlfriend he also thinks he cannot live with dignity anymore. That’s not a valid reason to kill himself’.
A 23-year-old Muslim student told me he wouldn’t put an end to his life if he found himself in the same condition as Nicklinson. It would be just a test from God to his faith.
So did God consent to make Nicklinson face this test? With the same logic, couldn’t Tony’s struggle be God’s way of showing us that it’s not right to let people live in undignified conditions? It seems to me that Tony Nicklinson had to face the hardest test of all and we, as a society, let him down.
Image courtesy of Jane Nicklinson