home Commentary, Culture, Society Assisted suicide is dangerously disablist

Assisted suicide is dangerously disablist

For many disabled people, the prospect of legalised assisted suicide is chilling. We spend our lives hearing “I’d rather die than be in a wheelchair / use a feeding tube / lose the ability to see / look like that” and, each time this is said to, around or about us, we know that this is disablism in action.

Passing peacefully away is a myth

Invariably, these people are the worried well and, for them, the prospect of living a disabled life is unthinkable.

They want access to a (theoretically) sanitised way to “end it all” if things don’t pan out as they hope and they happily ignore the evidence that assisted suicide can in reality be a horrible way to go. Ezekiel J. Emanuel reports that “in 15 per cent of cases, patients either did not die or took a long time to die – hours, even days; in 18 per cent, doctors had to intervene to administer a lethal medication themselves, converting a physician-assisted suicide into euthanasia”.

Unbearable pain

The idea of living in unbearable pain is frequently brought up in discussions of people’s desire for a legalised assisted suicide because intolerable, excruciating pain is unthinkable to many. We’ve all had long nights with gnawing toothache when we’d happily have sawn our own jaws off, or period pain that left us unable to do anything other than curl up and try to breathe for hours or days at a time. And imagining this, multipled in intensity, forever and ever is just too much.

Yet this isn’t why people choose to die in places where assisted suicide is legal. Pain can often be managed if a person is under a skilled and knowledgeable medical team. Pain levels can be reduced with medication and, as someone with chronic pain I can say that you can also kind of learn to live with the constancy of something; tune it out, even. It’s horrible, it hurts, and it’s worse than I would have imagined I could deal with. But – mostly – I can deal with it. People can deal with this.

If my pain makes me want to die, then my pain is not being managed effectively. And only real pain, not imagined, future pain, should be considered when discussing the right to an assisted suicide or not.

Only around 5% of people cite pain as a reason for wanting to die; this is far from the most prevalent concern, yet it is the one that non-disabled, healthy people expect they will go through.

Double standards

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the current assisted suicide debate in the UK and around the world is the idea that suicide prevention is very, very important and to be prioritised, but only for non-disabled people. When a disabled person becomes suicidal, their urges can be legitimised by their family and friends and approved by a doctor where their non-disabled counterpart would have been offered mental health support (at least they would in the days we had functioning mental health services, prior to austerity).

There is nothing about a disabled person wanting to die that is different to a non-disabled person wanting to die. They are going through a serious depression that needs urgent treatment, and facing problems that feel like massive boulders in their way. The future seems impossible, unbearable, intolerable.

It’s the same problem. Different for every individual, but not automatically ‘not ok’ for a non-disabled person and ‘understandable’ for a disabled or terminally ill one. The treatment isn’t medication and counselling for the non-disabled patient and assisted death for the disabled one, unless we are living in a very inequitable society indeed.

Why is pain considered a problem that cannot be borne by anybody, but when someone survives an abusive relationship or deals with violent homophobia or faces great financial disadvantage, they are encouraged to live through it, and come out of it stronger? How can we pit one human problem against another and judge that some of them are worthy of death, while others are worthy of encouragement and support?

What do we want to get rid of?

If assisted suicide should ever be legalised in the UK, we would not be getting rid of the problem of pain, we would be getting rid of the people who suffer from the pain. This is a strange way of approaching the issue and can be explained by the horrified disablism of those who can’t imagine their privileged lives being like mine, or like that of my friends. What their imagination does conjure up is apparently more important than my right to be treated with the same care and respect as a non-disabled patient, and should be ‘treated’ by an often difficult and laboured, medicalised death.

Suicide itself is not illegal, nor should it be. I have lost more people to suicide in my life than anybody can bear, but I support everybody’s right to use it if they feel they must. I would also support them to move away from that eventuality every single time, if I was allowed to, and I would certainly not judge that some of them (non-disabled, miserable) should be saved while others (disabled, sick) should be helped along their way with a nod from the doctor and a sad goodbye from family and friends.

Photo: Roco Julie/Creative Commons


Philippa Willitts

Philippa Willitts is a British freelance writer who specialises in writing about disability, women's issues, social media and tech. She also enjoys covering politics and LGBT-related topics. She has written for the Guardian, the Independent, New Statesman, Channel 4 News, Access Magazine, xoJane and many more publications. She can be found on Twitter @PhilippaWrites.

One thought on “Assisted suicide is dangerously disablist

  1. We don’t want doctors to turn into killers. But that’s what assisted suicide does. In fact, the American Medical Association rejects physician-assisted suicide in the following terms: “Physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer, would be difficult or impossible to control, and would pose serious societal risks.”

    Here are 9 more reasons why assisted suicide should be opposed.


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