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Can assisted suicide ever be safe when disabled people are so unequal?


Campaigners for Dignity in Dying, formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, have this week gone to the High Court to support a legal challenge brought by Noel Conway, who wishes to have access to assisted suicide. Conway is 67 years old and has motor neurone disease, and he hopes “to say goodbye to loved ones ‘at the right time, not to be in a zombie-like condition suffering both physically and psychologically’”.

Conway’s lawyer, Richard Gordon QC, came up against lawyers acting for disability rights group Not Dead Yet UK, who fought against the removal of the protection of disabled and terminally ill people that the current law provides.

Phil Friend, co-founder of Not Dead Yet UK, explained, “A change in the law is a terrifying prospect to the vast majority of disabled and terminally ill people who work hard towards achieving equality for all. Until we have reached that objective Assisted Suicide will remain a dangerous and prejudiced option, likely to increase suffering and distress”.

Disabled people’s fears over assisted suicide laws

If it becomes legal to help somebody kill themselves if they are sick or disabled, whatever parameters may be set (e.g. that their life expectancy must be under 6 months), this will place unprecedented pressure on sick and disabled people to end their lives.

In Oregon in 2000, 63% of the people who died under the assisted suicide law reported doing so because they felt like a burden, and in a disablist society where we are forever losing access to care, medical help and financial support, there is a serious risk that this would be a considerable issue here in the UK, too.

86% of people who died in Oregon under this law reported that they wanted to die because of a lack of dignity; can we not instead fight for a world where the dignity of elderly, disabled and unwell people is prioritised? And where needing support such as help using the toilet or having a shower was not portrayed or experienced as an undignified matter? We do not have to wait until we die to experience dignity – dignity in living should be pursued at all costs.

And while pro-assisted suicide campaigners argue that they mostly fear unbearable suffering – and who wouldn’t? – this has been shown to ultimately be an unusual reason for seeking death in places where assisted suicide is legal.

What has happened in Canada

Last year, Canada lost its assisted suicide legal protections as a result of a court case rather than a parliamentary debate (as Dignity in Dying is attempting to do here). As of last June, both assisted suicide and euthanasia have been permitted as a result of the judge’s ruling in a case involving Gloria Taylor, who also has motor neurone disease.

Many people are sceptical of disabled people’s fear of a ‘slippery slope’ situation, but Canada’s circumstances give us more than enough reason to suspect that these fears have some grounding in reality. As Kevin Yuill wrote for Spiked, “In the weeks that followed C-14’s passage into law, the Canadian federal government announced that it would conduct research into the possibility of extending the benefits of euthanasia to people with dementia, ‘mature children’, and those with solely psychological suffering. In the case of a 77-year-old woman suffering from non-terminal osteoarthritis, the judge chided doctors who had refused euthanasia on the grounds that her disease was not terminal. He granted the woman the right to die as she was ‘almost 80’ with ‘no quality of life’. And, of course, her death was judged to be ‘reasonably foreseeable’”.

Described by Yuill as ‘opening a Pandora’s box’, the assisted suicide change in Canada led to 1,324 cases of ‘medical assistance in dying’ between June and December 2016.

Suicide is legal

Distasteful as it seems to discuss it, suicide is not against the law in the United Kingdom. Long gone are the days when somebody would wake up from a suicide attempt to be arrested by the police and, if an assisted suicide law here was based on several others around the world, assisted suicide would only be permitted for those who were able to carry out the act themselves.

The danger is in making it legal for others to help with killing somebody. It is difficult to think of any safeguards that would be sufficient in a country where one in four Brits are afraid to even talk to disabled people. How can we expect them to encourage us to live when they can’t even bring themselves to talk to us?

Similarly, assisted suicide risks ruining the relationships between doctors and their patients. The British Medical Association opposes all forms of assisted dying and argues, as do many disabled campaigners, that looking for dignity in living is a far more appropriate response to suffering than encouraging their suicidal feelings.

Better hospice and palliative care, better pain relief and more attempts to treat people with dignity at any stage in their illness or disability has to be a vital first step before we can even think about making it legal to assist someone to kill themselves – rather than dissuading them as we would a non-disabled person – when they feel suicidal.

Photo: Roger Blackwell/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.

2 thoughts on “Can assisted suicide ever be safe when disabled people are so unequal?

  1. I am an Oregon resident whose wife is disabled by chronic progressive MS (30+) years. I am not in favor of *using* physician assisted suicide, and neither is my wife, but we both voted for it. Many people find it reassuring to know that they have that option.

    There have been times in my life when I felt like I was just a burden on those I loved and wished I could die, though I have never been disabled. That may be part of human nature. I wish you had included the raw numbers rather than just the percentages of people who reported this and that. People need to know these are tiny numbers of people actually using assisted suicide.

  2. Meanwhile: In OR, WA, CO and
    – [ ] CA report on assisted suicide is incomplete: How many self-administered as promised?
    What is missing in the CA report on assisted suicides?
    So after a year in CA how many self administered the poison as was promised when the concept was marketed? By omitting an ordinary witness all the flaunted safeguards are eviscerated and our choices are ignored and not honored allowing exploitation of us all.
    State Documents in Oregon indicate that 20% of their assistedx suicide deaths were bullied by the corporate facilitators forcing the poison. I take exception to the push polls yes 60%, even the religious, favor the concept then 95% change to not-in-favor after they learn how easily the laws can be wrongly administered saying “I’m not for that”. Risking us all,all ages, to be exploited by predatory corporations and predatory new best friends or heirs.
    Read the language of the laws to decern the double speak, omissions and commissions to reveal the exploited, expended and euthanized.

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