We hear a lot about “rights” these days. I would argue that save in very rare circumstances where the very safety of society is in peril, every man or woman has the right to live, but more than that, the right to live in dignity. I do not mean by that the “right” to have more than enough, or be protected from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that will inevitably buffet us all, or to be protected from folly, failure and accident or poverty. That would be naive, and would misunderstand the nature of the Universe. But an innocent man should not be treated with cruelty, inhumanity, or stripped of his dignity.
I would argue that Tony Nicklinson is an innocent man who is being treated in an inhumane way, albeit from the best of motives. So is “Martin”. Tony Nicklinson and Martin applied to the High Court seeking in essence a declaration that any person who assisted them in passing on from this life would be immune from a charge of murder.
The cases are tragic. Both gentlemen have suffered massive strokes which have utterly incapacitated their motor functions but left them intellectually unimpaired. The results, ironically compounded by the ability of modern medical science to keep them alive, are awful. I quote from the judgment handed down in the High Court this week:
“Put simply, the claimants suffer from catastrophic physical disabilities but their mental processes are unimpaired in the sense that they are fully conscious of their predicament. They suffer from “locked in syndrome”. Both have determined that they wish to die with dignity and without further suffering but their condition makes them incapable of ending their own lives. Neither is terminally ill and they face the prospect of living for many years.
I will refer to the claimants as Martin and Tony. Martin (which is not his real name) understandably wishes to preserve his privacy and the court has made an anonymity order. Tony’s case has attracted a lot of public interest because he has taken part in public debate with the help of his wife, Mrs. Nicklinson, and their daughters. As Mrs. Nicklinson has said to the media, whatever the outcome of his case, there will be no winners. Either way, there is no happy ending in sight.”
The consequences for both these gentlemen are tragic. Each is a prisoner of their own body which has become a living tomb…
Martin is 47 years old. He lives with his wife and his wife’s daughter. In August 2008 he suffered a brain stem stroke. This has left him virtually unable to move. He cannot speak. He can communicate only through small movements of his head and eyes and, very slowly, by using a special computer that can detect where on a screen he is looking.
He is totally dependant on others for every aspect of his life. He lives in an adapted room in his family home. He spends almost all of his time in bed, although he can be taken out of the house. His care is provided by his wife…and by full-time carers provided by his local NHS Primary Care Trust.
Martin is fed by people putting food into his mouth. He is able to swallow. His medication goes through a tube through his abdominal wall into his stomach. He wears a convene (a sheath over his penis, attached to a tube, into which he urinates). He defecates into special underwear. Adjoining the room in which he lives, he has a specially adapted bathroom in which he can be washed.
He is, it is understood, not likely to die of natural causes in the near future.
Martin has a strong, settled and reasoned wish to end his life. He loves his family, and enjoys spending time with them, and he likes to read. But he finds his life and his condition following his stroke to be undignified, distressing and intolerable. He does not wish to go on living like this. And, because he finds his current life unbearable, he wishes to end his life as soon as possible….
Tony’s day presently consists of writing his memoirs and watching TV. In the morning two carers come to get him out of bed. They shower him, get him dressed and put him for a short time on a cycling machine. He is then given breakfast and placed in a wheelchair. He spends the morning writing and the afternoon watching TV. At 4pm two carers come to transfer him from the wheelchair to an armchair. At 10.30pm a carer helps Mrs. Nicklinson to undress him, wash him and make him ready for bed, where he remains until 8.30am the following day. He has a night time carer to move him, which happens usually 3 or 4 times per night. Recently he took part in the making of a TV documentary which was broadcast on the eve of the hearing. The members of the court watched it.
In a statement he has summarised his condition in this way:
“My life can be summed up as dull, miserable, demeaning, undignified and intolerable. …it is misery created by the accumulation of lots of things which are minor in themselves but, taken together, ruin what’s left of my life. Things like…constant dribbling; having to be hoisted everywhere; loss of independence, …particularly toileting and washing, in fact all bodily functions (by far the hardest thing to get used to); having to forgo favourite foods; … having to wait until 10.30 to go to the toilet…in extreme circumstances I have gone in the chair, and have sat there until the carers arrived at the normal time”
A full copy of the transcript of the Judgment can be found heree: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2012/2381.html
And very moving interview with Tony can be found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00fkw53
Both Tony and Martin wish to die. They have made clear, intentional and entirely rational decisions. But the problem is that they cannot take their own lives because they are unable to move. Someone would have to help them. And on the present state of the law that would be unlawful, and quite possibly murder.
As I understand it Tony and Martin invoked the European Convention on Human Rights, and argued that as an incidence of their human rights, they had given their own particular circumstances the right to not be prevented by the State from undergoing voluntary euthanasia, because self determination and dignity were core values of Human Rights case law, and they were being denied both.
In the event, the panel of three judges felt unable to give Tony and Martin the assurances they sought. The legal arguments surrounding assisted suicide are complex, but British law has always set its face against suicide – and for understandable ethical reasons. In short, the Court declined to make any such ruling, holding that this went far beyond and previous interpretation of the Convention. Such a radical argument was a matter for Parliament.
I understand both men are deeply upset by the decision, but it was never going to work. There is a constitutional limit as to how far judge made law can go, and this is an ethical and moral step too far for the courts. Raccoon readers are on the whole intelligent and free thinking, and we can all recognize the potential dangers of voluntary euthanasia. But the problem is that medical science can extend life far beyond what was once considered possible but cannot at the same time assure any quality of life. In the case of Tony and Martin that has the consequence of their living an interminably miserable and – in their eyes – undignified existence. A living hell. There is another point which makes the situation doubly unfortunate and illogical. It is pretty much an open secret that in the latter stages of their care patients with for example terminal cancer are routinely over medicated to do more than temporarily ease their pain, and often rightly so. That is not an option for Tony and Martin. Their only option would be self starvation, and that is not an option which I regard as acceptable in a supposedly civilised society.
To my mind, these gentlemen should be allowed to pass on and find whatever peace awaits us, and do so in the care and love of their families and in their homes. It cannot be beyond the wit of man –or even Parliament – to devise a system which ethically allows for these two gentlemen to be relieved of their intolerable circumstances. Under strict controls yes, but a compassionate and humane solution must be found. It is time for Parliament to act on this matter.
On a lighter note (!) this weekend marks the 400th anniversary of the trial of the Pendle Witches. I have “borrowed” this from the excellent Wikipedia piece concerning the matter:
“The trials of the Pendle witches in 1612 are among the most famous witch trials in English history, and some of the best recorded of the 17th century. The twelve accused lived in the area around Pendle Hill in Lancashire, and were charged with the murders of ten people by the use of witchcraft. All but two were tried at Lancaster Assizes on 18–19 August 1612, along with the Samlesbury witches and others, in a series of trials that have become known as the Lancashire witch trials. One was tried at York Assizes on 27 July 1612, and another died in prison. Of the eleven who went to trial – nine women and two men – ten were found guilty and executed by hanging; one was found not guilty.
The trials were unusual for England at that time in two respects: the official publication of the proceedings by the clerk to the court, Thomas Potts, in his The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, and in the number of witches hanged together: ten at Lancaster and one at York. It has been estimated that all of the English witch trials between the early 15th and early 18th centuries resulted in fewer than 500 executions; this series of trials accounts for more than two per cent of that total.”
The full piece can be found here:
There also is a very interesting web site devoted to the episode here http://www.pendlewitches.co.uk/
On this one can read, amongst other matters, Thomas Potts’s descriptions of the various accused, including this of Elizabeth Southerns, also known as “Demdike”:
“She was a very old woman, about the age of four-score years, and had been a witch for fifty years. She dwelt in the Forest of Pendle, a vast place, fit for her profession: What she committed in her time, no man knows. Thus lived she securely for many years, brought up her own children, instructed her grand-children, and took great care and pains to bring them up to be witches. She was a general agent for the Devil in all these parts: no man escaped her, or her furies, that ever gave them any occasion of offence, or denied them anything they stood need of: And certain it is, no man near them, was secure or free from danger.”
It has to be said that to this day Pendle is a strange and forbidding place. My one limited experience of the place was a visit on a wet autumn day some years ago, and what I chiefly remember is the ominous, almost threatening site of Pendle Hill looming in the background. The hysterically camp and over the top “Most Haunted” team did one of their special investigations there under the suitably dramatic title of “Pendle Hell!”
What fun! I loved Most Haunted. There is also a rather nice although very strong ale called Pendle Witches Brew:
The anthropological significance and cause of “witch hunting” is an interesting topic. Witch hunting and witch purges reached a point of near hysteria in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Europe, with many thousands of mainly women reaching an unpleasant end. I recall from long gone student times how historians explain this in terms of paranoia induced by religious fanaticism, chaos of war and sexual repression. One of the biggest selling books of the late Medieval and what historians call the “Early Modern” period was The Malleus Maleficarum (Latin for “Hammer of the Witches”, or “Der Hexenhammer” as it was known in German). First published in 1487, it went through 20 editions and was a sort of “Witch Hunting For Dummies.” It told you everything you needed to know about how witches came to be, how to spot one and all the legal arguments to put before they were despatched.
Some would say that it is a good thing we have moved on to more enlightened and somewhat less Draconian days. I would largely agree, but when some Tweets from the ludicrous Sally Bercow infected my Twitter time line this week, I did start to hanker for “Ye Goode Olde Days”….
And for Witch Trial Fun, follow the link to the classic sketch:
I found this. Having written on the terribly sad plight of Tony Nicklinson and “Martin”, if not an antidote, a counterpoint. For no reason that is material to this blog I happened across this youtube video of an eagle this week:
I found it magnificent, awe inspiring and quite moving. I sent it to my friend, and she said it gave her peace. I hope you enjoy it, and it gives you peace too. And I hope that Tony and “Martin” find that peace too, in whatever awaits them. Perhaps one day in the not too distant future they will find themselves in whatever place awaits them, free to soar and swoop like eagles in recompense for their difficult circumstances now. I hope so. I wish them God’s Speed to that place.
Gildas the Monk