In the news today, Tony Nicklinson lost his legal battle to be killed. Tony is a victim of locked-in syndrome after suffering a stroke seven years ago, and is almost completely paralysed. He’s been campaigning for the right to die – or more specifically, for the right for someone to kill him, in accordance with his wishes, without being punished for it.
Assisted suicide is when someone is helped to kill themselves. It’s currently illegal in the UK, so usually when someone wants to end their own life they travel abroad to somewhere like Dignitas, in Switzerland. Even helping someone travel there is technically illegal, although no-one has actually been prosecuted for it – yet.
Sadly this isn’t much help to Tony: because he’s completely paralysed he’s unable to take his own life, even with assistance, so if he wants to die he needs someone else to do it for him. As Cathy Newman said on the Channel 4 news tonight, if he could but lift his arm enough to take some pills then he’d be able to take his own life – but as it stands he’s a man caught at the sharp end of a blunt law.
As I watched the report I thought about how advances in technology have helped paralysed people interact with computers, and then I started thinking about whether any of that could help Tony die. There are all kinds of eye-tracking products out there to let people control a cursor using just their eyes – and if you can control a cursor, presumably you could press a button that triggers a lethal injection.
At first glance it seems a world away from the normal accessibility issues you deal with – generally you don’t want your users to die when they click something – but in practical terms there’s little different between clicking “buy” and clicking… well…
I’d guess that setting up the apparatus of a lethal injection or other device would still leave you on the wrong side of the assisted-dying law, even if Tony himself was the one who activated it, but that’s surely better than a murder charge.
I think it’s disgraceful that Tony has been left hanging, unable to take his own life and unwilling to place his family or friends at odds with the law by killing him; as usual, the law is lagging a long way behind advances in medical technology. I hope that in five years’ time we can look back on Tony’s case in the same way we look back on slavery and other barbarism, and wonder why it took so long for society to realise that people should be free to end their lives when and how they want. Maybe in the meantime technology can ease the pain of the people waiting for the law to catch up.
There’s a petition here you can sign to try and hurry those changes along.