“Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
— Dylan Thomas
I’m glad Tony Nicklinson is dead. I only wish it had happened sooner.
After all, it’s what he’d been fighting for since 2005.
I didn’t know Tony, who was a former corporate manager, skydiver and rugby player until a severe stroke left him a prisoner inside his own body — a condition known as locked-in syndrome. His brain worked fine, but he could not speak or care for himself.
The 58-year-old lived in Wiltshire, England, with his wife, Jane, and two grown daughters, all of whom supported him when he took his fight for the right to assisted suicide to court.
Tony’s argument was that, due to his severe physical difficulty — he was paralyzed from the neck down — he was unable to take his own life, unlike someone who was able-bodied. By denying him the right to die with assistance, he said, the state was discriminating against him based on physical disability.
It was a legal battle he ultimately lost.
In a wide-ranging interview with the U.K. Guardian’s Elizabeth Day in June, Tony outlined, via Twitter, the daily hell his life had become.
He was only able to communicate by blinking. His wife would hold up an alphabet board and track his eye movements to the appropriate letters. He also could use a computer program that followed the movement of his eyes as they focused on certain letters and translated those selections into sentences.
Both processes were laborious and painstakingly slow.
Tony required constant care, describing his situation to The Guardian by saying, “It certainly feels like you’re trapped in something (coffin?).”
He wrote of his daily existence via messages on Twitter: “Uncomfortable (6 hrs in chair without moving), undignified (being fed for ever like a baby), demeaning (crying like a baby in front of caregivers), degrading (taking a dump while in a sling over a commode), wet (I dribble constantly when awake), foul taste (I sleep with mouth open so saliva dries).”
When Tony’s petition to overturn Britain’s ban on euthanasia was rejected by the High Court last week, he was “devastated and heartbroken,” The Associated Press reported.
On Wednesday, he died of pneumonia, his family said.
So, in a way, even though Tony did not win his legal fight to choose when and how to end his life, in the end his body did not betray him. He was victorious in his long battle for death, albeit if not quite in the manner for which he had advocated.
To the people who will argue that only God can decide when our time on Earth is up — or who would suggest that that’s exactly what happened in Tony’s case, I say this: not everyone shares your beliefs.
Tony did not. And he had every right to have his beliefs respected as you do yours.
“Some religious people say god giveth and only he shall taketh away, or some such nonsense,” he tweeted in the interview with The Guardian. “Whatever delusion turns you on just don’t expect me (an atheist) to go along with it.”
Tony died with dignity, but not because the courts respected his right to do so.
He died with dignity in spite of the laws of the land.
So perhaps it’s time British laws — and ours — were changed.
As a friend at work aptly noted, we wouldn’t dream of leaving an animal to suffer horribly, so why do we think it’s OK to watch our loved ones struggle with terminal disease or unbearable, incurable pain?
In Switzerland, the Dignitas clinic offers assisted suicide, but only after clients meet rigorous criteria and only if they are physically able to self-administer a painless barbiturate dissolved in water.
Tony would not have been an acceptable candidate.
In Canada, assisted suicide is still illegal, but gains are being made in the fight by those who argue we should have that right.
In British Columbia in June, that province’s Supreme Court declared invalid a section of the Criminal Code that prohibits physician-assisted suicide.
That doesn’t mean the service is immediately available in B.C., but as The Globe and Mail’s Sunny Dhillon reported on June 15, according to Queen’s University research fellow and lawyer Ricardo Smalling, “if the government does not do something about (the court ruling), or if the B.C. Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court of Canada does not grant an injunction to stay the implementation of the decision, then assisted suicide will automatically become legal.”
The article also noted that a panel of experts of the Royal Society of Canada that studied end-of-life decision-making said “in a report released last year, that informed Canadians should have the right to choose death within a regulated system, even if they have not been diagnosed with a terminal illness.”
On March 22 in Quebec, a Select Committee on Dying with Dignity released a report which found similarly, recommending, among other things, “that relevant legislation be amended to recognize medical aid in dying as appropriate end-of-life care if the request made by the person meets (certain criteria) as assessed by the physician. …”
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When asked in The Guardian interview what constitutes a good life, Tony Nicklinson tweeted, “Just being able to live it.”
Tony was no longer able to live his good life. And he raged against the dying of the light that was the life he once had.
If you and I should find ourselves at that point, don’t we deserve the right to choose our own peaceful and dignified exit strategy, provided that does not compromise our personal beliefs?
Like the “grave men, near death” of the Dylan Thomas poem quoted at the beginning of this column, Tony was able to “see with blinding sight.” And he kept focused on his goal until the end.
It’s a fight worth continuing.
Rest in peace, Tony.
Pam Frampton is a columnist and
The Telegram’s associate managing editor. She can be reached by email at