Richard Dawkins gets it right. Sarah Wollaston misunderstands.


Richard Dawkins has put up a new essay on assisted dying over at, in response to the High Court’s decision in the case of Tony Nicklinson and someone named simply AM, who is in a similar situation to Tony Nicklinson. He begins it with these words:

“I can hardly bear to see poor Tony Nicklinson’s face as he hears the news that he is not allowed to die. I am ashamed of my country and its laws”.

The question is: how can anyone see Tony Nicklinson’s face as he breaks down at the news that his judgement about the value of his continued life will not be respected, and that he must find some other way to end his torment?

The crucial decision of the court is expressed in these words:

“78. A court hearing an individual case, concentrating rightly and inevitably on the dire circumstances of the claimant, is not in a position to decide such broader questions, but its decision would create a precedent which would affect many other cases.

79. As to constitutionality, it is one thing for the courts to adapt and develop the principles of the common law incrementally in order to keep up with the requirements of justice in a changing society, but major changes involving matters of controversial social policy are for Parliament.”

And then the judgement goes on to quote “ample support for that proposition.” Amongst the supports is the judgement by

Lord Reid [who] said in Shaw v DPP [1962] AC 220, 275:

“Where Parliament fears to tread it is not for the courts to rush in.” [para 79]

That, however, is a remarkable statement, for the courts are there precisely to protect citizens in the case that Parliament fails to act in respect of issues that concern matters of justice, defence or rights and compassion. Parliament has so far failed to act. There is absolutely no reason within the common law that a precedent could not be set, and the precedent, as I suggested yesterday, could have been protected from uncontrolled ramifications by giving Parliament the time and the opportunity to act in respect of issues raised by the judgement. That is precisely what Madam Justice Lynn Smith did in the Carter decision in British Columbia, thus showing that she was much wiser than the judges of the High Court in London. Justice Smith made a limited judgement that Gloria Taylor had legal permission to receive help to die, and gave Parliament a year to adjust the law to reflect the protection of rights that is now being denied to those who are in Gloria Taylor’s situation. What the High Court could have done, and, in my view, should have done, is to have given Tony Nicklinson and AM the relief that they sought, while at the same time putting Parliament on notice that they must bring the law up to date in such a way as adequately to protect the rights of others so situated, whilst at the same time protecting those who might, in the opinion of some, be put at risk by the recognition of such rights to die.

Written By: Eric MacDonald
continue to source article at


  1. I can remember Lord Denning castigating Silkin with the quote “be you ever so high the law is above you!”
    It is a parliamentary duty for the law surrounding requested euthanasia to be made clear and just.
    I would expect of course religiously committed MPs to be more influenced by the dogma of their faith rather than their moral conscience.
    As HL Mencken said “a politician is someone who sits on the fence with his ear to the ground on both sides.”

  2. Is Tony Nicklinson any worse off than Stephen Hawkings? I haven’t noticed Stephen clamouring for assisted suicide. Maybe Tony should be guided towards a mission or purpose in his life.
    Is he in pain? I assume he can read? Is his means of any communication any worse than Stephens? From what I saw on TV no.

  3. The whole point is that is should be Tony Nicklinson’s decision, not Stephen Hawking’s and certainly not yours.

  4. You miss the point by trying to make value judgments on other peoples existence.  If Tony wishes to die that’s his right.  If Stephen wishes to live on that’s his choice, not yours, mine, or that of some wretched judge.

  5. We want everyone to lead a fulfilling purposeful life, but how could we give that to Nicklinson if we couldn’t even give him the security that his right to decide his future will be respected?

  6.  So Psychiatrists should give up their profession and not help people who have suicidal tendencies other than give them a helping hand to help them commit suicide?

  7.  Never claimed it was my decision, but just suggesting that if somebody could give him some purpose to his life, then maybe he would change his mind about wanting to end his life.

  8.  Hawking is a world-class brain in a broken container, and he fortunately has a large support network. There’s no comparison.

  9.  Don’t see why Tony should not be given enough support to do a distant learning course like Edx, Coursea, OU if that’s what he wanted to do. Trouble is somebody would have to come up with something he was interested in. I do worry that he is now suffering from depression ( not surprising given his situation ) and cannot see a way out.

  10. Even if Nicklinson was skilled enough at something to get the same meaning from it in his life as Hawking does from theoretical physics, and even if he was a world-respected celebrity with a large, supporting family, and even if his problems were limited to the technology-enabled paralysis for which Hawking is famous (who, as far as I am aware, lives without any great pain – which is unsurprising, given that his problem is degeneration of nerves) – in short, even if Nicklinson had no more reason than Hawking to want to end his life – that at least one person worldwide with as much reason to want it doesn’t want it wouldn’t mean it’s OK to ban everyone like Nicklinson from getting it.

  11. It was reported today that Director Tony Scott killed himself after learning that he had an inoperable brain tumour.  If true, the option to arrange his own death legally and peacefully might have spared him and his family a lot of trauma.  Maybe not. I don’t know what was going on in his head, but I would like that option to be avaioable to me if I’m ever in a similar situation.  

  12. This was a great read; thank you for posting.  This is my first time reading anything by Eric Macdonald.  I shall keep a lookout for other articles he writes.

  13. yes, i agree.  KeithSloan appears to be saying that people in similar circumstances should all respond in the same way. this is nonsense.  furthermore, how well does he know nicklinson or hawking to be able to take such a position. ultimately, and adult human being should have the right to do anything he wants with his body provided nobody else is hurt.

  14. I can only try to imagine how Tony Nicklinson must feel, and I suspect my imagination isn’t up to the task.  And I do think it should be legal for a doctor to fulfill his clearly expressed wish to have his life brought to an end.

    However, there is a big BUT.  It is not currently legal.  It should be, but it is not.  And it should not be for judges, however wise and experienced, to make our laws.  That should be a job for our elected representatives in Parliament, Congress, or wherever.

    Our job is to elect the right representatives.

  15.  ” ultimately, and adult human being should have the right to do anything he wants with his body provided nobody else is hurt.”

    So I assume you are against people being sectioned under the mental health act for being at risk of self harm.

    Also you would be happy for all the depressed people to just take a pill and die, rather than be treated for depression.

  16. i see what’s upsetting you.  you’ve jumped on the fact that i didn’t point out that some adults are in situations where taking decisions is very tricky.  i’m sorry have failed to make a list of all the exceptions.  further, i’m not sure that i would ever use the word “happy”.  i think that you are probably, unfairly, if not maliciously, trying to make me look callous.

  17. As a person with significant disabilities, do I have a right to live?  If a 30 year old woman living in poverty with five children said life is so horrible she want to kill herself, does she have a right to because even healthy, life is a big burden?  I am very sorry if people want to end their lives, I can see people, especially those in the USA with great healthcare having this problem.  For most people however we are killed off quickly by lack of healthcare or the low quality. 

    I would never support euthanasia until prejudice against living with a disabilitiy and my right to have a life is protected, which none of these laws do.  In the USA they offer an incentive for killing people off when they can’t pay for the profits.

  18. Just because some people wish to cling to life whatever the cost it does not mean that everyone else should suffer as well. All of the arguments here are covered in the article. Having the right to live (so who’s against abortion at any stage?) is just as fundamental to having the right to die I remember ‘nursing’ an old lady who was dying, she could not be cured, her body fell apart in pieces over many weeks, she grabbed my arm and said, ‘You will never be able to show your face in ******* again I’ve told them what you are doing. You are killing me but you won’t let me die’.
    I believe that by any description she was tortured to death.

  19. If a young women from a poor country who was poor, burdenr with a nasty family and lots of kids wanted to kill herself would it be ok?

    I my fellow crips want to kill themselves it is ok with me as long as my right to a life with a significant disability is respected in very very strong language.  This site is very open and still very handicappist, less so than most non disability sites still the call to kill the disabled to help them seems a rallying cry.  Jack Kevorkian killed off a couple people who are pretty able bodied compared to me and were afraid of living with a disability without ever meeting people with significant disabilities.  It is almost like the religious killing people to save their souls.

    Until the issue of quality of life for people living with disabling conditions is addressed, for many this could be a death sentence.   I am not against the concept, I just don’t want someone to take it on themselves to kill me for my own good.

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