Is there a right to die?


Tony Nicklinson talks about his right to a pain free death

Tony Nicklinson scans the screen, blinks, and then his words - which he has painstakingly compiled - are read out by a computer-generated voice.

Mr Nicklinson can do almost nothing for himself - nothing except make a few eye and head movements. But it is enough for him to make his views crystal clear.

Although he was paralysed by a stroke in 2005, his intellect is intact. I met him and his wife Jane at their home in Wiltshire in advance of his High Court hearing.

Mr Nicklinson wants the courts to allow a doctor to give him to give him a lethal dose - it is a direct challenge to the law on murder.

It takes Mr Nicklinson a minute or two to compose each sentence. A sensor at the bottom of the screen tracks his eye movements and when he settles on the letter or word he wants, he blinks. I interviewed him at his home in Wiltshire a few days ago.

His care needs are too complex to allow him to make the journey to court.

I have reported his case several times so I was glad to meet him and to try to understand a little more about his life and why he wants to be allowed to die.

He told me "each day is getting that little bit more uncomfortable and harder to bear".

You can watch the interview by clicking the box above.


The hearing at the High Court represents a fundamental challenge to the law on murder. In amounts to an appeal to allow euthanasia which is strictly prohibited.

It goes further than the case of Diane Pretty, who had motor neurone disease. The House of Lords rejected her appeal in 2001 to allow her husband to assist her suicide.

Tony Nicklinson is paralysed from the neck down so he could not pick up and drink a lethal cocktail prepared by another. Instead he wants a doctor to administer the lethal dose.

Common law

So what are the arguments which Tony Nicklinson's legal team will use in court?

First they will try the common law defence of necessity against a murder charge - arguing that the only way to end his suffering is to allow him to die. This is judge-made and judge-interpreted law - it's not written down in statute.

Necessity was used successfully in 2000 in the case of conjoined twins - doctors had to separate them in order to allow one to live. They knew the other twin would die, but necessity demanded they sacrifice one to save the other, otherwise both would have perished.

This case is very different, and I have re-read the judgement in the Pretty case at the House of Lords, and there the same argument of necessity was rejected.

Mr Nicklinson's team will also argue that his case is covered by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights which deals with the right to respect for private and family life.

This does not mention a right to death, but this part of the Convention has been frequently used in assisted suicide cases.

Mr Nicklinson will not be at court as his care needs are too complex to allow him to journey from Wiltshire to London.

The hearing at the High Court will last a few days and then judgement is expected to be reserved until a later date.

The case raises huge ethical and social issues which will spark major debate in the weeks ahead. Win or lose, Mr Nicklinson can be assured that the issue of whether there is a right to die will be discussed in great detail by judges, politicians, the media and the public.

Fergus Walsh Article written by Fergus Walsh Fergus Walsh Medical correspondent

Defeating cancer, the 'evil genius'

Can we win the war against cancer? Over the past 18 months, Panorama has followed a group of patients on drug trials. Some who'd been given months to live, are keeping cancer at bay for years.

Read full article


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    This subject would not be debated if we were talking about animals such as cats, dogs, horses, etc.. We would absolutely not wish to have an animal suffer, why do we force human animals (which is what we are) to suffer? Any attempt to end a humans life should be along the same lines as those for the family pet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    I have long held the idea that if we are responsible for how we conduct ourselves during our lives, we must also be responsible for how & when it ends in certain circumstances.Those being when we are in a position to say we have had enough, usually through illness. I agree safeguards need to be in place but to abrogate responsibility because of superstition or stupidity is no reason not to debate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    C: the sufferer's situation may improve to the point where life becomes tolerable.
    C maybe, but it's still his choice"
    This applies to bridge jumpers, folks balancing on highrise window sills, sitting in front of approaching trains,etc? We have no right to interfere because it's their choice? Or only when it's a non-messy , clinically observed suicide?

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    Its long overdue that the UK should openly debate this thorny subject and yes I think there should be a way "out" for those who want to that is dignified, and can be done in private.

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    The posts against suicide fall into three categories:

    A: only a supernatural deity (contributors invoke various gods) has the authority to end human lfe.

    B: there's a risk of coercion by those who may benefit from the death.

    C: the sufferer's situation may improve to the point where life becomes tolerable.

    A is irrational.
    B needs strong safeguards
    C maybe, but it's still his choice


Comments 5 of 142


Features & Analysis

BBC Future

Knowing how to trigger an immune response may help beat cancer (SPL)

Can we make the body self-heal?

Lessons from baffling cancer 'miracles'


  • A cyborg cockroachClick Watch

    The cyborg cockroach - why has a computer been attached to this insect’s nervous system?

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.