The BBC News ran a story this week about Tony Nicklinson, an unfortunate man suffering for the last seven years from locked-in syndrome. The result of a stroke, locked-in syndrome has left him with a paralyzed body but a fully-functioning mind. He cannot even communicate without the aid of a special computer. Mr. Nicklinson is going to court to try to have a doctor kill him legally.
In the video accompanying the story, Mr. Nicklinson gives some of the justifications for his request. He feels he is being discriminated against, just because he is disabled, in exercising the right to determine when, where, and how his life will end, which he calls “the basic human right.” In the story, his barrister is quoted as saying that with modern medical care, Mr. Nicklinson could be expected to live “another 20 years or more. He does not wish to live that life.”
I cannot begin to imagine what Mr. Nicklinson’s life and suffering are like. I have no trouble believing that he does not wish to live the life that he has. But in fact there are many, many in this world in various situations — granted, most of them not as extreme as Mr. Nicklinson — who do not wish to live the life they have, not just because of terrible physical symptoms but because of suffering brought on by toxic family relationships, or oppressive social structures, or grinding poverty, or enslavement to an addictive substance. Is the fact that they do not wish to live the life they have justification enough to allow them to exercise their “basic human right” to end their lives when, where, and how they will? Is there a certain level of suffering which, once one has achieved it, allows one to exercise that right?
Modernity is all about control. With our reproductive technologies we have gained increasing control over the beginning of life, and with that control has come the enumeration of a number of dubious “reproductive rights.” This story is an example of another salvo in the battle to win control over the end of life. However, it ends up just being another way of defining a life as being a “life not worth living.” We have seen in history what happens when a person or persons were granted the power to determine that another’s life was “not worth living.” The results will be no less appalling if we give people the right to decide whether or not their own lives are worth living — and then grant them the power to act on that decision.