Assistance to live, not assistance to die
Laura Woodhouse // 18 July 2014
Today, Lord Falconer’s assisted dying bill, which would allow doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs to terminally ill patients judged to have less than six months to live, is being debated in the House of Lords. The bill is viewed by many disabled activists as a huge threat to disabled people: it represents but a first step towards the wider laws that right-to-die advocates are campaigning for, further devalues the lives of people who are sick and disabled and, some argue, defines terminal illness in such a way as to bring people with chronic illnesses and impairments into its remit. The bill is also particularly concerning given the current climate of “scrounger” rhetoric, cuts and entrenched societal disablism. I have blogged previously about how I changed my own views on assisted suicide through listening to disabled people’s voices, so I would like to share some of their arguments here.
In a New Statesman interview, Tanni Grey-Thompson challenges the idea that assisted dying is simply about individual choice:
“I think it’ll always be difficult to create legislation in this area that’ll protect vulnerable people,” she tells me. “We can say it’s about individual decisions but I’m not sure it’s that easy. That individual’s affected by everyone around them, whether they think they’re a burden, or a hindrance, or they’re not getting the care they want but don’t feel like they can say anything. With the welfare cuts, people are really worried about their care.”
Grey-Thompson also mentions that people have come up to her and said they wouldn’t want to live if they were like her. This theme is picked up by Penny Pepper, who highlights the fact that disabled people’s lives are devalued to the extent that suicide is seen as an “understandable” option:
I was unhappy and badly needed mental health support to treat depression. Sad to say that the standard response was to link my illness and disability automatically to my depression – and my “understandable” suicide attempt. There is a link, but not the one perceived by mainstream thought, medical or otherwise. I was stuck in an isolated dead-end existence within the family home, and my mother was my only carer.
It felt like there was no chance of escape from a pointless existence; frustration dragged my depression into a downward spiral and I attempted suicide. I was in despair with barriers, with limits on personal freedom, and lack of independence – issues that can be alleviated by proper social care and the adaptation of physical boundaries.
Yet instead of providing the rights, care and support that disabled people need, society views disabled people’s impairments as the sole source of their problems and too many view helping disabled people kill themselves as a “humane” way to alleviate suffering. This approach is rooted in disablism, as Clair Lewis argued in 2010:
When healthy people are suicidal, the usual response is to try to help them live better lives, not provide a solution which encourages them to die. It seems that disabled people are the only people who can be suicidal and mentally competent at the same time. Help offered to people with suicidal feelings is often inadequate. But however strapped for cash the NHS is, the one thing they won’t do is offer to finish the job off properly.
In When “No” Means “Yes” For “Your Own Good”, Mik Scarlet shares his story of medical professionals acting against his wishes and his fears of what this could mean if assisted dying were legalised. He also draws on his own experience of becoming disabled to argue against assisted suicide:
People such as Paul Lamb or the late Tony Nicklinson both campaigned for a law that allowed for sick and disabled people being able to request assisted suicide. If this was to happen then another teenager who was going through the same experience as I did back when I was fifteen [when he became disabled and felt suicidal] could call on the medical profession to assist them to die, stating they could not face the quality of life they had to look forward to as a disabled person as a reason. This in itself is worrying for so many disabled people, but now consider that there are surgeons out there who carry out procedures without consent or after consent has been withdrawn.
The title of this piece, written by Christopher Jones six months before he died of cancer, speaks for itself: “Right to die: There were times when I would have ended my life if it were legal – coming out the other side I’m glad it wasn’t”.
Stephen Drake at Not Dead Yet considers the “slippery slope argument”, showing how right-to-die campaigners in the US view assisted dying for terminally ill people as just a starting point for the extension of that “right” to others, while this has already occurred in Europe:
…advocates try to steer clear of discussing the Benelux countries, which have embraced the euthanasia of nonterminally ill people, people with depression, old people who say they’re tired of living and the euthanasia of “severely disabled” infants – in the Netherlands, children with Spina Bifida have been the main target of medical killing according to reports.
Finally, Miss Dennis Queen offers ten reasons to fight the bill, ranging from discrimination against severely sick and disabled people to the fact that the people this law will relate to almost never have all the things they need to live a good life.
The image shows a likeness of James Bond pointing a gun, next to the words “Don’t give doctors a licence to kill” and “Disabled people say NO to Falconer”.