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Assisted dying: further reflections on Mr Nicklinson’s condition

03 August 2012


From the Revd Michael Hore

Sir, - I am grateful to Professor Michael Marsh ( Letters, 20 July) for arguing that severe disability need not be incompatible with dignity and usefulness. The campaigning voice of many in the media claims that the only realistic solution to a severely limited life is the oblivion of death. I would wish to testify that this need not be the case.

I was diagnosed with motor neurone disease some three years ago. Since then, I have experienced progressive disability. I am confined to a wheelchair, I cannot breathe without mechanical assistance, and I need help with dressing, eating, turning over in bed, and toileting.

I am still in post as Rector of St Laurence's, Upminster. Because of the progression of my illness, my ministry in the church is constantly changing. I am largely a prisoner in my rectory. I cannot visit people in their homes. Leading worship in church has become a struggle. I could easily look upon myself as useless. With the generous help of family and parishioners, however, I can still be of some value, and (I am repeatedly told) am valued.

Of course, everyone reacts to a disabling illness in their own way; I cannot offer my response as a model for anyone else. Nevertheless, I find the most powerful encouragement in the belief that, despite my physical limitations, God still has a purpose for my life, and that I still have a ministry to fulfil.

Professor Marsh is correct in saying that, despite one's having lost so much, there are still great blessings in being able to "see, hear, smell, and think". There remain many ways in which I can minister as a parish priest. I can still witness to God's love; I try to show that life is to be enjoyed; my service of God remains without bitterness. Indeed, while I would much rather not suffer from this terrible disease, I believe that I have an important witness in showing that positive faith can survive severe disability.

Strangely, I do not feel I can contribute very much to the debate about assisted dying. Perhaps I am simply lucky in my personality and my faith; I cannot demand that every seriously ill person should think as I do. But I do take issue with those - particularly in the media - who encourage me to believe that death might be preferable to what I am experiencing. Dignity, joy, and usefulness can survive serious disability.

The Rectory, 4 Gridiron Place, Upminster, Essex RM14 2BE

From Canon Robin Gill

Sir, - I am most grateful to Professor Michael Marsh ( Letters, 20 July) for writing a detailed response to my article ( Comment, 13 July) on the tragic predicament of Tony Nicklinson, who has locked-in syndrome

Using his medical expertise, he argues that Mr Nicklinson's condition is quite different from that of Anthony Bland, who was in a so-called "persistent vegetative state" (a phrase that I used but personally dislike). I must defer to Professor Marsh on this, although I never argued that the two conditions were medically similar.

My focus was on the legal and ethical similarities and dissimilarities of the two cases, and here, I fear, Professor Marsh is on less secure ground. He argues that my "assessment is neither strictly accurate nor clear". In contrast, his own is clear-cut: Mr Nicklinson "does possess the power to die, and, at his choosing - by refusing all fluid and calories", and that "assisted killing is illegal."

This is indeed clear, but harsh. It also ignores the legal ambiguity of the Law Lords' judgment on Bland (a number of legal experts have concluded that they really did intend to bring his life to an end), and Mr Nicklinson's deep distress at having been treated in Greece, as he claims, against his wishes (something that would be illegal and unethical in this country).

Having discussed this carefully with medical lawyers, I doubt if the judiciary will allow doctors actively to kill Mr Nicklinson as he wishes; nor would I wish this to happen. But some judicial process - perhaps extending the Director of Public Prosecutions' Guidelines for those with locked-in syndrome on a case-by-case basis - is, I believe, the least we should do to respond compassionately to Mr Nicklinson.

SECL, University of Kent, Canterbury CT2 7NF


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