Leaders: No moral high ground in letting Tony Nicklinson’s nightmare go on

FEW could be left unmoved on reading the distressing circumstances surrounding the case in the High Court yesterday involving Tony Nicklinson.

He had sought a ruling that would allow doctors to end his life, having suffered a severe stroke seven years ago which left him paralysed from the neck down. Able to communicate only by blinking, he has had to endure what he described as a “living nightmare”.

The High Court ruled against his request. Mr Nicklinson, “devastated” by the decision, says he now intends to appeal. “I thought”, he explained, “that if the court saw me as I am, utterly miserable with my life, powerless to do anything about it because of my disability, then the judges would accept my reasoning that I do not want to carry on and should be able to have a dignified death. I am saddened that the law wants to condemn me to a life of increasing indignity and misery.”

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It is hard to conceive a more eloquent appeal from a person to seek to end his life after a long period of appalling suffering due to his catastrophic stroke. The key difference between this case and other “right-to-die” cases which have focused on assisted suicide is that Mr Nicklinson would be unable to take lethal drugs, even if they were prepared by someone else. For someone else to kill him would, in the eyes of the law, amount to murder.

Explaining his ruling, Lord Justice Toulson said a decision to allow the claim would have consequences far beyond this particular case and that the court would be making a major change in the law. It was not for the court to decide whether the law about assisted dying should be changed: this was a matter for parliament to decide.

This ruling, while arguably correct in strict terms of the law, hinges however on the fine distinction drawn on the manner of assisted suicide: because Mr. Nicklinson would be personally unable to ingest the lethal drugs, and was dependent on others to administer the means of his termination, he must therefore be left to endure his condition regardless of his own wishes. Indeed, there could be little doubt in this case as to his preferences. Not only were these clearly stated, but he also embarked on a lengthy legal process to have them respected.

The law has a cardinal obligation to preserve life. But it surely cannot be right for assisted dying to be permitted in similar cases but for permission to be refused in a case of extreme helplessness such as this. Mr Nicklinson is a man of sound mind who has come to a reasoned and logical decision. Is it the courts role to impose more suffering on a man who has suffered enough? Do compassion and humanity have no place in justice? The courts should be about doing the right thing, and the right thing here is to grant Mr Nicklinson his wish. The marginal moral difference in assisting his suicide, as opposed to others, simply does not merit this heartless treatment.

Julian Assange must face a Swedish court

The plot so far: Julian Assange, an Australian national resident in the UK who is sought by the United States for alleged national security violations, has taken refuge in the embassy of the Republic of Ecuador in London while resisting extradition from the UK to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning in that country over assault and rape claims. It is hard to imagine how the British Government could make matters more complicated. But the Foreign Office has threatened that it could lift the embassy’s diplomatic status by using the little known Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act. Passed after the Libyan embassy shooting, this allows the UK to revoke the diplomatic status of an embassy on UK soil, thus potentially allowing police to enter the building to arrest Mr Assange for breaching the terms of his bail.

The 1987 Act was intended for situations where the police had cause to believe a crime had been committed on UK soil – not the case here. Voluble friends of Mr Assange have erupted in indignation, human rights lawyers have rushed to their pulpits, the Ecuadorian government has taken grave exception – and Mr Assange has been granted asylum on the grounds that his human rights might be violated. A legal Mr Bean at the FO could scarcely have created more mayhem.

Mr Assange is cock-a-hoop. An escape door has swung open. But has it? Ecuador has no locus in this case and should hand him over. And William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, says he will not be allowed safe passage out of the country. Asylum does not equal immunity from prosecution. Julian Assange has to go to Sweden to answer his accusers. It is the only justice.