Assist disabled people to choose life, not death
Next week, the House of Lords will debate Baroness Meacher’s Assisted Dying Bill. It is, in fact, an Assisted Suicide Bill.
“Assisted dying” attempts to make us believe it is for the terminally ill in their last days. Many disabled people would disagree. They will be anxiously listening to the arguments about assisted suicide, which would be offered by doctors to people just like them.
Supporters of the Bill claim it only removes the legal safeguards against suicide for those with a terminal illness, but it is wide enough to include those like me who live with a progressive disability which can suddenly deteriorate. Our condition is often considered terminal because of the all-pervasive stereotype of disabled people “suffering”.
Doctors are not immune to stereotypes. Some years ago, I was critically ill in hospital. The consultant declared they would not resuscitate me should I stop breathing because it was “not in my best interests”, as “I was obviously end-of-life”. Luckily, my husband was present to advocate for me.
Good palliative care should be available to everyone who needs it. Sadly, that is not universally so
Licensing doctors to administer lethal drugs to patients would cross the Rubicon of “do no harm”. The role of doctors is to support patients to live as well as possible until death. We need to trust that they will do everything to that end; we rely on them to feel safe and secure. Legalising assisted suicide would jeopardise this relationship.
I empathise with those who feel tempted by assisted suicide if they have intolerable pain. I am not immune to dark thoughts when my health fails and my social care support wanes, but my own experience has taught me that patient-centred care is the answer.
The priority is always to alleviate pain – that applies to anyone who is in the late stages of a terminal illness. Good palliative care should be available to everyone who needs it. Sadly, that is not universally so – there are inconsistent levels of care across the UK, particularly for disabled people dependent on intensive health and social care support. They have complex needs which, if neglected, can have dangerous consequences – they are likely to resort to the only option left.
The question for peers is whether assisted suicide should ever be an alternative to life-saving treatment, palliative care, and appropriate support. We all know this is critically under-resourced, and it must be rectified before suicide is offered. Otherwise, it is not a true choice.
Legalisation would alter society’s attitude towards those in vulnerable situations by signalling that assisted suicide is an option they ought to consider. Canada (the latest to legislate) has been criticised by successive United Nations disability rights rapporteurs for the impact of its assisted dying law on persons with disabilities. We must not follow in their footsteps.
In Oregon, often cited as the model for legalisation, less than 4 per cent of patients who have died from assisted suicide since its introduction in 1998 have been referred for psychiatric evaluation. Concerningly, almost half cited being a burden on their loved ones among their reasons for seeking assisted suicide.
Passing this law would be a dark day in our nation’s history. It would run counter to our duty to protect the most vulnerable, and would exacerbate their fears, through insidious pressure, of being regarded as an expendable burden. As has happened elsewhere, the Bill would doubtless be extended.
No major disability rights group in the UK supports legalising assisted suicide. What they support is immediate and sustained improvement in their care. Now is not the time to abandon them to the desperate temptation of an assisted suicide under the guise of compassion.
Baroness Campbell is a crossbench peer.
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