Tony Nicklinson is an intelligent, happily married, loving father-of-two. He also has locked-in-syndrome: an acute brain trapped in a defunct, mute body.
Paralysed after a stroke in 2005, he is wholly reliant on others for his every need. He can only communicate by means of a computer that translates blinks and minute head movements into speech.
“I cannot scratch if I itch,” he says. “I cannot pick my nose if it is blocked and I can only eat if I am fed like a baby – only I won’t grow out of it.”
His existence is a “living nightmare … dull, miserable, demeaning, undignified and intolerable.”
As such, the 57-year-old wants to die; if he could kill himself, he would. But he is incapable. This week Tony launched a case at the High Court, seeking legal protection from a murder charge for any doctor who helps him end his life.
Only the callous could negate the wishes of an eloquent man who, for seven years, has been able to do little but consider his predicament.
He says: “It cannot be acceptable in 21st century Britain that I am denied the right to take my own life just because I am physically handicapped.”
Tony’s family supports his decision. Not because they don’t love him; but because they do. Not because they won’t mourn him bitterly when he is dead; but because they want what he believes is best for him. That is the absolute definition of selfless love.
The case has, unsurprisingly, stirred a glut of controversy. After Tony took to Twitter this week to promote his bid, he quickly attracted more than 25,000 followers, many of them urging him to change his mind.
Several advised him to “think of his children”. Does anyone in their right mind think he is not thinking of his children?
And they, too, are thinking of him. The title of this week’s devastating Channel 4 documentary said it all: Let Our Dad Die.
Tony’s family could, of course, fly him to a clinic in Switzerland, where euthanasia is legal. But why should they? Why shouldn’t he be allowed a dignified exit at home, surrounded by love?
If you have – as I have done – watched a terminally-ill loved one die and heard them desperately voice the wish to choose the timing and manner of their death, you will – at the very least – have thought long and hard about putting them out of their misery. Legal consequence be damned.
But if Tony’s wife or children were to give him the lethal overdose he so craves, they would be charged with murder. And that is why he is fighting to change the law.
There are those, including the Ministry of Justice, who claim that legalising euthanasia will put the elderly and the vulnerable at risk, that ageing relatives – because of financial or burden-of-care incentives – could be badgered by their families into agreeing to assisted suicide.
This is an empty argument. Any law can be abused and must, therefore, be enforced with diligence and care. We do not ban cars to prevent traffic accidents. Instead, we police the roads. That is how a civilised, forward-thinking society functions.
Others have referenced religious concerns but ours is a secular country. The notion that suicide is a mortal sin is, thankfully, redundant and wrong. And Tony is, after all, an atheist.
I am not saying – and nor are the Nicklinsons – that suicide is the only answer to life-changing injury. Life is all about personal choice.
Take the example of rugby player Matt Hampson, paralysed from the neck down in 2005 – the same year that Tony suffered his stroke.
Matt has – just like Tony – made a choice that is correct for him. He has chosen to live. But he is all too aware that what is right for one is wrong for another. The 27-year-old tried to counsel Dan James, a fellow rugby player, similarly paralysed, who ultimately chose to die at the Swiss clinic Dignitas.
Matt says: “Who had more courage? The boy who chose to live or the boy who chose to die?”
Indeed. Both decisions – just like the one taken by Tony – demanded equal courage.
The law can, all too often, be an ass. I only hope that this time – for the sake of Tony Nicklinson and his family – sense and decency prevail.