by Kevin Meagher
The suffering and death of Tony Nicklinson has been painful enough to watch as an outsider, let alone to experience what it must be like as a family member or friend of this once active and independent man.
His fight to reform the law to allow ‘assisted suicide’ – rejected in the high court last week – was heartfelt and passionate. It clearly gave focus to his bleak and tortured existence after suffering from “locked-in syndrome” for eight years following a massive stroke in his early 50s.
But his passion and sincerity were misplaced. The law should not be liberalised and, if anything, should be strengthened to prevent the slide towards legislation that creates circumstances in which the life of a sick or disabled person can be deliberately ended.
This sentiment will rankle with some who, moved by Nicklinson’s terrible plight, would have granted him the scope to end a life he plainly no longer wanted to live.
“I wouldn’t want to live if that happened to me” is a response most of us will have uttered at some point, usually as a response to the sight of someone with profound physical or mental disabilities.
The impulse is perhaps strongest among those who live successful, rewarding lives. Baby-boomers like Nicklinson personify a generation that takes personal autonomy and choice for granted, unhindered by others’ boundaries.
In this view, the thought of being humbled by disability or disease destroys the very thing that animates a well-spent life – individual freedom.
But let’s be clear what is at stake. Whether we call it euthanasia or assisted suicide we are talking about killing human beings. We are forced to cross a Rubicon. Unlike war, where death is a by-product of other strategic goals, in this instance death is the point.
The subsequent questions are grisly but inevitable. How many people should be allowed to die at the hand of another? Is it purely a matter of consumer choice (‘I don’t want to go on living’) or do we objectify criteria in some way? And, ultimately, how will we permit the deadly act to be carried out?
The implications for our collective public morality are profound and far-reaching. There is no framing of the law, no amount of safeguarding, no well-meant assurances that will or can prevent every abuse once we go down this road. The liberal argument against the death penalty has always been that a single innocent life taken is a price that is never worth paying.
So, too, it is with disabled people, the elderly and the mentally incapacitated. They are not a “burden” as the ethicist Mary Warnock disgracefully argued a few years ago. Their lives, regardless of the lingering prejudices of able-bodied onlookers, remain just as valuable and deserve the same protection.
We must therefore override the impulse to make allowances, even in extreme cases like Nicklinson’s or any of the other equally heart-rending examples that periodically appear before the law courts and the court of public opinion.
After two weeks of “elite athletes” displaying their super-human physical prowess during the Olympics, we now have the Paralympics upon us. The poor relation as far as corporate sponsorship goes, this next fortnight is a celebration of human achievement that actually tells us something much more profound.
The Paralympics is a passionate cry for equality. A proud display of the perseverance of the spirit to transcend physical setbacks. So much so that a man who lost both legs in childhood like Oscar Pistorius can now appear as an equal on the starting blocks of the Olympic 400 metres final.
For the left, the correct response is not to waste time and energy working out how to permit the killing of sick and disabled people but to focus on tackling stigma and discrimination against them while doing everything to bolster their quality of life. This was the approach – and the magnificent legacy – of Labour MP and disability champion Alf Morris who died last week.
His obituaries reminded us what a landmark achievement his Chronically Sick & Disabled Persons Act was, recognising that each of us, disabled and able-bodied, has an equal, inviolate humanity that demands respect and fair treatment.
Far better, then, to fight on this ground than to give in to the nihilism of assisted suicide.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut