LONDON — A British stroke victim paralyzed from the neck down and suffering from so-called locked-in syndrome won the right Monday to seek changes in a law that would enable a doctor to end what he has called an “intolerable life” without risking murder charges.
Playing into an emotional debate on assisted suicide for those with severe disabilities, the case brought by the stroke victim, Tony Nicklinson, went one step further since he is physically unable to participate in his own suicide and is thus seeking to make it legal for a physician to take his life.
Nicklinson, 57, “does accept that he is now inviting the court to cross the Rubicon,” Justice William Charles said as he allowed the case to proceed on two of three arguments presented to him. The Ministry of Justice had sought to quash all three challenges by arguing that it was for Parliament, not the courts, to decide the issue.
While euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal in Britain, campaigners have pursued long-running efforts to liberalize and clarify the ambiguous laws surrounding these issues. Some Britons suffering from incurable ailments have traveled as far afield as Switzerland for access to assisted suicide.
The ruling Monday seemed a modest victory for advocates of euthanasia and assisted suicide, and by no means a decisive resolution of what Charles called “questions that have great social, ethical and religious significance.”
Nicklinson, who is married and has two adult daughters, suffered a stroke in 2005. He is able to communicate only by blinking and nodding to choose letters from a special electronic screen.
“Nothing is going to get better,” his wife, Jane Nicklinson, told the BBC on Monday. “The only way to relieve Tony’s suffering will be to kill him. There is absolutely nothing else that can be done for him.”
Nicklinson’s lawyers had argued for permission to seek judicial rulings on three arguments — two under human rights legislation and one under common law — to enable a physician to “terminate or assist the termination” of his life without facing murder charges.
The lawyers argued that such action could be covered by “the defense of necessity” in common law. Charles said Nicklinson had sought “a lawful route to ending his suffering by ending his life at a time of his choosing with the assistance by positive action of a doctor in controlled circumstances that have been sanctioned by a court.”
Necessity has been cited in the past in cases, for instance, where physicians separated conjoined twins, saving one of them while the other died. But some physicians argued after Monday’s ruling that Nicklinson’s arguments, if accepted, could set a perilous precedent by providing legal justification for doctors to murder patients.
Charles also accepted that Nicklinson could argue, under human rights legislation, that the current laws on murder and assisted suicide were “incompatible with Nicklinson’s right to respect for private life.”