Fighting for the right to die

Pam Frampton
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“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. …”

• • •

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

Twitter: pam_frampton

Organizations: U.K. Guardian, High Court, The Associated Press Supreme Court of Canada Globe and Mail B.C. Court Royal Society of Canada Select Committee on Dying

Geographic location: Wiltshire, England, Britain Switzerland Canada British Columbia Queen Quebec

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Recent comments

  • Colin Burke
    August 29, 2012 - 07:48

    Any argument presented strictly on its merits can stand on its merits, signed (with the author's real name) or unsigned. However, if someone merely dismisses an argument -- by calling it preposterous, for instance -- without trying rationally to rebut it, knowing who that person is and anything he has said before can be helpful in deciding whether to trust his judgement -- if we are inclined to rely on the judgement of others. As for any opinion's being the last word on any subject, G.K. Chesterton pointed out that a man's believing his own opinion to be the right one only means that it is his opinion: having an opinion means believing it to be right.

  • Herb Morrison
    August 28, 2012 - 11:53

    Peter L. I don't believe that my opinions represent the last word on any subject. Simply because I disagree with what someone posts on this or any website, that doesn't guarantee that they ar wrong. It simply means that I believe that thay are wrong. I am entitled to my opinion. I specifically stated that a person would be justified in using a pseudonym if they have a legitimate. if indeed what you post is factual, you have a legetitimate reaso for using a pseudonym.

    August 28, 2012 - 08:51

    Doug & Herb, so your beliefs are right and many others are wrong. How absurd. First of all, I use a pseudonym because I once stated something in the Telegram, and for that my life was threatened, my children harassed in school, my wife at work, me at work, and had nut bars at my door. I will not go through that again for my beliefs or opinions. This has nothing to do with slavery, you are way out to lunch on this, you exagerate to make a point, to the point of being absurd and plain arrogant. I never said I was against abortion, gay marriage, assisted suicide anywhere, what I said that those who oppose it should not be forced to do it, there are others willing to do so, so those not willing should also have the freedom of choice. Why should a church that is against it due to their beliefs forced to agree to these issues, other churches are willing, so go to those. You make many assumptions, I am not on any wrong side, I believe in choice for all, not just for one side. This is true freedom of choice, otherwise it's simply forcing the left agenda, yet you oppose the right agenda from having an opinion. That make your opinions as worthless as any other.

  • Doug Smith
    August 27, 2012 - 20:30

    Mr. Morrison, for once I agree with you, your remarks on pseudonyms are exactly correct and to the point. Peter L., how narrow and closed minded you are. Your retrograde opinions do humanity a disservice. Whether I am arrogant or not is of no importance. The important thing is whether I am right or wrong. Everyone has opinions but some opinions are wrong and evil. At one time slavery and discrimination was legal in North America, some doctors, clergy and even 4 US presidents had slaves. The fight for freedom eventually did away with slavery. Nowadays, the fight for freedom continues on many fronts, with abortion, gay marriage and assisted suicide only three of many. Of course those on the right, (I guess that includes you Peter L.) are on the wrong side of history and continue to campaign a losing battle against personal freedom and equality. Doug Smith Grand Falls-Windsor

    • PETER L
      August 28, 2012 - 17:24

      DOUG SMITH, it seems to be you who are narrow minded. My opinions are not retrograde, I am only saying, per my reply above, that to have true choice, doctors who do not believe in abortion or assisted suicide should not be forced to perform it, and clergy who are against gay marriage should not be forced either to perform it. Where is the free choice you speak of? Where is there choice when other are willing. This is nothing at all like salvery, and you do much injustice to that struggle to say assisted suicide is the same. We have never been more free, even to the point of all this in this debate, except that assisted suicide is still illegal, no matter what you or I think. It will come to pass sooner or later. It is worthy to note, even to all the far right Christians, that all this is predicted in the bible, and it WILL all happen. So acording to scripture, things are not falling apart, they are coming together as prophesied. The best fight any Christian can make is to insure that they are not forced to be a part of it, as even today Christians are less free to worship as they please, and will be less free as time goes on. Where is the freedom of choice there, seems the Christians are the new people to discriminatae against legally, and that too is wrong and hateful. So much for your personal freedom and equality Doug Smith, seems you wsnt is only for the far left, which I guess include you Doug Smith.

  • Herb Morrison
    August 27, 2012 - 15:35

    To Mr. Smith and Slippery Slope. When it comes to the issue of the use of pseudonyms the issues involved , for me at least, are integrity and credibility. Why should I believe or trust anyone who, without any stated legitimate reason for insisting on anonymity, does so.The fact is, some of the statements made on this and other websites do have merit. However, the lack of integrity involves negates, in my mind, any merit that the writings made under a pseudonym, without a stated legitmate reason for claiming anonymity

  • Colin Burke
    August 27, 2012 - 15:34

    What people ought to enjoy or endure are the effects of what they do. If someone really is convinced that suicide is a solution for the indignity of helplessness, why would he not commit suicide before he could incur the indignity of needing someone else to kill him -- unless while he was enjoying life he really thought that being alive was in itself a noble privilege one ought not to reject in any circumstances? If his thinking thus was only an illusion, well then, embracing illusions is often deemed to warrant hardships of one kind or another. Why is it, anyway, that hardly anyone who favours "assisted suicide" seems inclined to allow capital punishment for murderers of people who presumably want very much to remain alive?

  • Doug Smith
    August 27, 2012 - 12:55

    Who Says, I (Doug Smith) am an ordinary citizen of Grand Falls-Windsor that belongs to no advocacy group whatever. I speak and think for myself and no one else and I say what I believe whether you or anyone else likes it or not. I have nothing to hide and am willing to be held to account for whatever I say or write. Anyone too afraid to sign their name to an opinion publicly expressed can’t be taken seriously. Unless a person is taken seriously they and their opinions can never command respect. Therefore their opinion is, without merit. If doctors, clergy etc. don’t want to perform abortions, gay marriage, or assisted suicide, then they should look for work in other areas. To deny someone their freedom to choose just because you don’t like their choice is a form of oppression. Doug Smith Grand Falls-Windsor

    • PETER L
      August 27, 2012 - 17:49

      How arrogant you truly are. Why should clergy, doctors etc have to look for employment elsewhere just because they do not follow your beliefs. You are no better than those you distain, the so called far right. You are far left according to your views. If someone wants to be a clergy in a church that is against gay marriage, why should they not? If a doctor does not want to do abortions or assisted suicide why should they be forced to? Because people like you say so? What a sad world this would be if run by people of your mind set. Kill everything that someone wants killed, live any kind of perverse life. You are denying those clery and medical professionals their freedom to choose as well. They choose their profession and choose not to abort, kill, or marry gays, that is their choice and should not be forced to do those things. There are still others in those professions willing to do so, so why take away the freedom to choose from one group and not another? Your argument still fails as it is one sided, hence without merit, just too far left! You may be Doug Smith, or may be just another Joe Blow hiding behind a name, how do we really know? You without merit!

  • Doug Smith
    August 26, 2012 - 15:42

    Who Says and Slippery; one of the reasons you need to sign your names is so readers will be able identify you should you be a leader or well known follower of some far right or religious group that is only interested in pushing an agenda and not concerned in personal freedom and human well-being. Having thus identified you, readers would know who they are dealing with and could then dismiss your views as “without merit”. As regards assisted suicide, of course it should be legal. If a person wants to end their life, for whatever reason, who has any right to prevent it? NO one! Of course there will always be people trying to impose their will on others. These know it alls, like Slippery, are a menace to personal freedom and need to mind their own business. From day one in the history of mankind people have been battling for freedom and this debate over assisted suicide is another such battle. Doug Smith Grand Falls-Windsor

    • WHO SAYS
      August 27, 2012 - 09:14

      First Doug Smith, there is no "need" to sign, where do you get that idea? If there was a need the Telegram would require it, so there is no need. Everyone has a right to their opinion too, not just those like you and a few like you wh think just because you sign a name only you haqve merit. Everyone's opinion has merit, whether you like it or not. The debate is not over someone taking their own life, but about assisted suicide. This is indeed a slippery slope. Like the abortion issue, doctors, nurses and others will be forced to do this against their own beliefs, that is wrong. In the abortion, and gay marriage issue, clergy, doctors etc, were told that they would not be forced to go against their beliefs, then the law changed, and continues to change forcing those who do not believe these issues are right, to do abortions, preform gay marriages etc. This is totally wrong! You opinions are no better than the far right you so despise, you are forcing your own personal beliefs on others, so perhaps, according to your logic, as we don't know who you are, that your opinion is also of "NO MERIT".

  • Slippery Slope - Slippery Rope
    August 25, 2012 - 18:29

    @ "Doug Smith": If the only thing you can reply to my comment with is, "since since you lack the courage to sign your name ... comment is without merit" it shows you have no other arguments and you are grasping at straws. You never even made a comment yourself. To attack and dismiss the person is a common tatic of radical left-wingers who have the inability to refuse and defeat the logic of those who promote dignity. I am not amazed that you never dismissed the radical comment of "Anon" or any other likeminded people who never put a name on thier comments.

  • Doug Smith
    August 25, 2012 - 09:19

    Slippery Slope- Slippery Rope, since you lack the courage to sign your name to your opinion I am forced to conclude your comment is without merit. Doug Smith Grand Falls-Windsor

    • WHO SAYS
      August 26, 2012 - 08:47

      Who says that without a name the comment is without merit? Who put the foreman's face on you? The comment has merit, whether the name is on or not and wheter you or I believe it or not. Who says even if your real name is Doug Smith?

  • Anon
    August 25, 2012 - 08:56

    Either we start allowing assisted suicides or we and the families continue to deal with what happens when 70 year old cancer patients put bullets in their skulls.

  • Slippery Slope - Slippery Rope
    August 25, 2012 - 07:38

    A person is worth more than an animal. You kill an old animal if they get sick, however a person derserves more love, respect, care and concern. If someone is asking for suicide there is obviously an under-lying condition. They need extra loving attention, conselling from depression or mental illness, pain medication. With legal assisted suicide and euthanasia, elder abuse and ill abuse will go on the rise abusers will see the death of their victims an easy way out for the abuser. The abuse is is the fashion of suttle hints or not so suttle attempts at making people think they are burdens and should ask to end it all. Then doctors do make mistakes as has happened in other areas with legal assisted suicide when patient files or IDs get mixed up as already happens occasionally here in NL.

    • Ruby J Burke
      August 26, 2012 - 01:01

      Euthanasia is quite a controversial topic and will remain so because of various beliefs. I feel in one way, it is God's choice not man's to decide how, when and where we die. I , however, feel great sympathy for those who suffer greatly and wonder what kind of God allows this and why. Few people realize that legalized euthanasia already exists in the form of Morphine. Many times when a person is dying in great pain and discomfort, they are placed on morphine to alleviate this . One of the side effects is the decrease in respirations so that as the dosage is increased to alleviate the increase in pain or decrease in the person's tolerance of the level of pain, this increase of the dosage eventuallly stops respirations and the person dies. This raises the question should we abide by and continue this existing form of euthanaisia , which allows the person to die with some degree of dignity and comfort or is it right to allow God to take the person when HE is ready? Death can be as undignified as birth. When a woman is giving birth , she readily asks for something to help with the pain in most cases so should not a dying person be given something to help decrease the pain but I guess I do believe God decides death as he decides life. We cannot think ourselves more powerful than the Creator and make decisions which are His to make. I do believe in the individuals' right to decide how to run his own existence and demise if he or she is prepared to deal with the consequences on the Judgement Day. Thank you .

      August 26, 2012 - 14:48

      @ RUBY: There is a difference between providing needed pain relief that will hasten death as a side effect (which is legal and moral) and making a decision to hasten death by providing things like morphine which relieve pain (which is not right). In other words, give enough medication to relieve pain but not to overdose. There is also a difference between having someone involved in your active killing (either assisted suicide or euthanasia) and you choosing, or having someone if you are unable, to not undergo extraordinary measures (which is not assisted suicide or euthanasia). People tend to get the whole legal meanings of things mixed up. They say there is nothing wrong with AS or EUT thinking it is happening now and would not mind seeing the law changed, not realizing that AS or EUT does not happen now. If these people do not get educated we will end up with many forced or unintentional deaths.