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How Not to Respond to the Nicklinson Verdict

23 Aug, 12 | by Iain Brassington

Unsurprisingly, the ruling handed down last week in respect of Tony Nicklinson and “Martin” has generated a lot of comment.  A lot of that comment has disagreed with the ruling.  David Allen Green, the Staggers‘ legal correspondent and also known as the blogger Jack of Kent, tweeted that it was a “dreadful court decision… depriving a person of basic dignity“; and in the wake of Nicklinson’s death, added that he thought it was still “entirely open for courts to rule in his favour rather than blame Parliament“.  Over at the Practical Ethics blog, Roger Crisp suggests that the High Court might even have acted unlawfully.

Sympathetic as I am to Nicklinson’s basic moral claim, I think that such responses are mistaken.  Not in the sense of their being in any way disreputable – it’s just that I’d argue for a different conclusion.  But, as such, it’s the possibility of an argument that matters, and there’re arguments to be had either way, some of which will be powerful, and some of which will be less so.  That’s the nature of debate.

There are others, though, whose response seems to me to get things entirely wrong.  I’ll give one example from each side.

First, a pair of tweets from the British Humanist Association yesterday:

If anyone knows of a person who is terminally ill wishing to end their life and would be prepared to take forward the appeal from Tony Nicklinson’s case on assisted dying please contact pavan@humanism.org.uk

This gets things wrong for a couple of reasons.  In the first place, I think it mistakes the role of the plaintiff in cases like that of Nicklinson, Pretty, and Purdie.  All these cases have been brought for the sake of the plaintiff, as it were.  Their desires and welfare were the motivating force, and any confrontation with the law came only in the wake of that concern with their desires and welfare.  The BHA’s call, on the other hand, seems to reverse this: it seems to suggest that there’s a cause, and they’re looking for someone now to be the new standard-bearer for it.  But – unless such candidates’ cases are significantly qualitatively different from those that we’ve seen already, I struggle to see how they’ll stand much chance, either.  And if I’m right about this, it simply means that there’s a good chance of someone being thrust into the media spotlight for no good reason at all.

But it’s also a political and tactical mistake for the BHA to make this kind of call.  There’s already a fear expressed by some that attempts to legalise assisted dying are symptomatic of a wider campaign to get rid of disabled people (see here, for example).  I think that such fears are, at best, unfounded; but any apparent search for volunteers who’re willing to go to court for the sake of the cause can only really contribute to those fears, precisely because it’s the cause rather than the plaintiff that’s in the driving seat.  I know that the tweet specifically mentions people who want to end their lives (note that it also stipulates terminal illness, which would have ruled out Tony Nicklinson himself), but it’s also primarily directed at people who know such people, not the terminally ill themselves.  And the big problem – it’s worth saying again – is with the impression that the BHA is looking for someone to volunteer, or be volunteered, to take one for the team.

However sympathetic to the cause one might be, that’s not the way to go about it.

Still: whatever the BHA’s blunder, it’s as nothing compared to this, published on Richard Carvath’s blog on the 20th of August.  It’s one of the most nauseating pieces of writing I’ve seen in a while.  (I would thank Ophelia for having publicised it, but I’m not sure that thanks is the right expression.)  It’s also 2500 words long, so I can only give the edited highlights lowlights here.

Take the opening:

Poor old Tony Nicklinson.  His wife wants to kill him, his family want to kill him, his barrister wants to kill him, the mainstream media want to kill him, the euthanasia lobby want to kill him and a vociferous mob of Twitter followers want to kill him.

Believe it or not, it gets worse.

I am well acquainted with suffering in various forms myself.  A couple of years ago as a result of a climbing accident I was temporarily disabled for several months.  I was in hospital for 36 days (and remained in a brace and casts for weeks afterwards).  For days on end I was literally unable to move my body; all I could do was lie helplessly flat on my back.  [...]  To be severely incapacitated for several weeks was painful, humiliating and unpleasant – but despite it all I had peace, hope, purpose and the will to live.  My memory of being completely incapacitated is such that I can reasonably claim a better insight than many able-bodied observers into what it feels like to be trapped unable to move in one’s own body.  Tony Nicklinson’s epic trial of years of paralysis is greater than my few weeks and months of incapacity, but unlike many I can claim to have had a taster of his torment, and hand-on-heart I say there is no suffering so great that it cannot be endured when we know the source of the courage to conquer our worst fears.

So what?  OK, so he was temporarily disabled.  He also knew that he had a fighting chance of recovering at least some independence as his wounds healed.  Maybe he does have an insight of some sort into what it’s like to be locked in.  But the fact that something can be endured – and just about anything can be endured, in the sense that it’s possible to imagine someone enduring it – doens’t tell us the first thing about how we should deal with people who don’t want to have to endure it.  Carvath’s claim amounts to “I stuck with it for a month or so, therefore everyone should have to do the same forever”.  It’s self-aggrandising nonsense.

And then it gets personal:

Tony certainly isn’t a  human rights hero or a positive role model for the severely disabled either.  Tony is selfish: he is concerned for no one other than himself.  Tony is cowardly: he lacks the courage to live with dignity.  Tony is dishonourable: he seeks murder and despises his own life.  Make no mistake: however much Tony is being manipulated by the media, the pro-euthanasia lobby and even his own family, Tony is guilty of pursuing the legalisation of murder, which, if he ever achieves his aim, would inevitably lead to the murder by doctors of hundreds of vulnerable disabled, incapacitated or elderly patients in an NHS holocaust of involuntary euthanasia.  So however much pity Tony’s suffering evokes, is he some sweet innocent ‘Mr Nice Guy’ we should all feel terribly sorry for?  I don’t think so: whilst I have every sympathy for Tony, suffering as he does, I do not forget that this is a guy who is campaigning to legalize murder and who doesn’t care that countless disabled people will be bumped off in NHS hospitals and care homes if the law is weakened to please his personal whim.

Oh, good grief, man.  You might think this privately – but there’s really no obligation to make such a pillock of yourself in public.  Have a bit of dignity.

There’s more.

Many people may be thinking: “What a horrible, nasty little man Richard Carvath must be to say Tony Nicklinson is selfish, cowardly and dishonourable.”

Why, yes: I think they probably are.

These are the same people who want Tony dead; these are the people with murder in mind.

Um… no.  Not a single person wanted Tony dead, except perhaps Tony himself – but I doubt that.  At most, they wanted Tony’s misery to end; and if death was an unavoidable part of that, then they were willing to bite the bullet.  Confusing the two is a bit like confusing the willingness to take on a loan to buy a house with wanting to be a homeowner.

But do carry on, Richard.

I love Tony Nicklinson and I recognise just how precious his life is, whereas my opponents have nothing but contempt for his life.

On second thoughts, please don’t carry on.  I mean, at this rate, you’ll be looking at the whole sorry episode as an excuse to evangalise for Jeebus.

I don’t know when Tony last laughed but not for nothing do they say laughter is the best medicine.  Above all, we can pray for Tony and we can introduce him to Jesus – the Suffering Servant, the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings, Jesus our Healer, Jesus our Saviour.  Jesus binds up the broken-hearted; He restores souls; He transforms minds; He raises the dead.  Jesus gives peace and joy despite circumstances

[…]

As the saying goes: “No Christ, no hope… know Christ, know hope.”  Tony Nicklinson has no hope without Jesus.  Tony needs a true friend, a healer and a saviour.  Only Jesus can save, heal and strengthen Tony.  Jesus is ‘the Resurrection and the Life.’  Even in a condition of severe disability, Tony Nicklinson can know abundant life worth living when he knows Jesus Christ in his life.  So for Tony’s sake somebody really ought to tell Tony about Jesus.

Can you excuse me for a while?  I think I’m going to have to go and bang my head against the wall for a bit.  A month or two, maybe.

 

UPDATE: Here’s a tweet from Carvath yesterday:

Well, the humanists’ euthanasia idol is dead. It’s no wonder they’re tweeting hysterically. Guess I’ll just get on with my life. Goodnight.

Ugh.

UPDATE 2: Tauriq Moosa has a pop at another silly response here.

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  • Keith Tayler

    I agree that the BHA have not understood the legal and political issues. I am also in agreement with your previous blog on the points of judge made law and the need for parliament to change the existing law. However I am not sure parliament is up to the job given the complexity of the task of protecting the vulnerable within our massive health service with its extremely poor record of patient and staff protection. It worries me that the media, especially the BBC, are so pro-AS and have not begun to properly consider the Devil in the detail of an AS bill. As with the second half of your blog, it tends to get distracted by religious extremists. Carvath raises one or two legitimate concerns but they are drowned out by his confrontational style and bible bashing. We should, for example, consider how selfish someone is being when they demand to be killed. All in all this is not a good climate for parliament to debate a bill. Perhaps parliament should legislate for some reforms to health care (implementation of the Dilnot proposal, independent complaints procedure, etc.) before considering an AS bill.

  • http://www.law.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/staff/iain_brassington Iain Brassington

    Hmmm… I suspect you may be overstating the case just a smidge… ;)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ayame-Sohma/100002225988462 Ayame Sohma

    How so? A bullet is at least painless. Or to put it another way: the “Care” not Killing Alliance’s position is:

    Suicide by cop, YES.
    Suicide by starvation, YES.
    Suiciide by merciful barbiturate overdose: HELL NO!

  • http://www.law.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/staff/iain_brassington Iain Brassington

    Because it’s plainly not the case that people who oppose assisted dying have less compassion than al- Qaida. That’s just a wild statement – so wild that it doesn’t even have rhetorical force.
    And it’s also plainly not true that doctors who refuse to help patients are torturers – I assume you mean refuse to help them to die; but it’s false either way – unless you subscribe to the notion that a failure to assist is just the same as positively harming. But that’s an absurd statement, too…

  • Winston Jen

    In some cases, it is. Heck, I would even say in MOST cases, because pricks like Peter Saunders think self-dehydration is A-OK, but a peaceful pill isn’t.

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