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Friday, August 17, 2012 - Page updated at 07:30 p.m.

U.K. denies right-to-die legal challenge

By MARIA CHENG
The Associated Press

LONDON — Britain's High Court on Thursday rejected a request to legally allow doctors to end the life of a man who has locked-in syndrome.

Tony Nicklinson had a stroke in 2005 that left him unable to speak or move below his neck. He requires constant care and communicates mostly by blinking, although his mind has remained unaffected and his condition is not terminal.

In January, Nicklinson, 58, asked the High Court to declare that any doctor who kills him with his consent will not be charged with murder.

The High Court ruled that challenges from Nicklinson and another man identified only as Martin to the country's euthanasia law were a matter for Parliament to decide.

Nicklinson said he was "devastated and heartbroken" and planned to appeal.

"I am saddened that the law wants to condemn me to a life of increasing indignity and misery," he said.

Martin, 47, also has locked-in syndrome and asked for the court to allow professionals to help him die either by withholding food and water or by helping him go to a clinic in Switzerland to die. His wife said she respects his wishes, but does not want to help kill him.

Locked-in syndrome is a rare neurological disorder where patients are paralyzed, and only able to blink. Patients are conscious and don't have any intellectual problems, but they are unable to speak or move.

The judges wrote that they were both "tragic cases," but said that to allow euthanasia as a possible defense to murder "would usurp the proper role of Parliament."

Nicklinson had argued that British law violated his right to "private and family life" as guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, on the grounds that being able to choose how to die is a matter of personal autonomy. He has previously described his life as "a living nightmare."

Legal experts weren't surprised by the ruling.

"This is a really slippery case," said Richard Huxtable, deputy director of the Ethics in Medicine department at Bristol University. "Although the courts have been willing to look at guidance around assisted suicide, this is about as far as they have been willing to go."

In Europe, only Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands allow euthanasia. Switzerland allows assisted suicide and is the only country that helps foreigners die at a clinic near Zurich.

"It's very clear courts are unwilling to make the radical shift in our understanding of murder by allowing euthanasia," said Arthur Caplan, director of medical ethics at New York University's Langone Medical Center.

"But they did leave a small door open for prosecutorial discretion," he said, pointing out that the judges acknowledged the decision to prosecute people who helped others to die was not always straightforward.

Britain's top prosecutor has previously said that people who help loved ones commit suicide won't necessarily be charged with murder.

Caplan said the British cases were a major departure from past euthanasia debates because neither man is terminally ill.

"Most of the cases which triggered legislation in the past were about dying people and their quality of life," he said. "We will see more of these discussions as people live longer and we decide what to do about those who are severely impaired."

Experts said Nicklinson could take his case to the Supreme Court or to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

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