There is need for caution but disabled people deserve the right to dieby / July 21, 2014 / Leave a comment
Lord Falconer’s bill to legalise assisted dying should be passed—and extended from those with less than six months to live to any disabled person capable of deciding to die.
Of course, for me this debate is unnervingly personal; as Baroness Campbell, who has Spinal Muscular Atrophy, told a packed House of Lords on Friday, “this bill is about me.” Baroness Campbell opposes the bill, and for reasons I can relate to. She fears that disabled people, feeling themselves to be a burden on their families, will choose to die sooner than they otherwise would like.
She worries too that the measures will be abused, allowing people to murder disabled people and cover their deeds up as assisted suicide—or at least to pressure them in to dying. The bill, campaigners argue, devalues the lives of disabled people. And, they argue that a government may see assisted dying as a good reason to cut funding for care.
Maybe. It is, I admit, hard to say how we can avoid these pitfalls. If and when a bill is passed, a panel of medical, psychological and legal experts will need to hammer out detailed regulations. But the need for caution does not mean we should not act. There is more to this debate than practicalities.
I am not trying to write off the immense mental and physical suffering a severely disabled person may experience, and how this may make their lives unbearable. Each person will experience things differently, but few will want your pity, even if they ask for your compassion. We cannot judge the quality of someone’s life—only they can do that. Instead I am here to show you that the ability to control the manner of your death is as much a right as the right to live. In a liberal society, we cannot deny that right to anyone, whether they need assistance or not.
If an able-bodied person wishes to commit suicide, they are free to do so. Their bodies and the law do not stop them. It may not appear anywhere on the statute books, but able-bodied people already have the right to die. People worry that disabled people may choose to die in a moment of despair, which may pass in time; surely the same is true for anyone? We cannot use such false arguments to discriminate against a section of society—the essence of a right is that it is held by everyone, regardless of circumstance.
It surprises me, then, that disability campaign groups tend to be in such strong opposition to assisted dying. In so many other areas they rely—quite rightly—on the language of equality, choice and rights; and yet in this case they appear to be denying disabled people all three. Passing a comprehensive assisted dying bill would, by contrast, give those people control over one of the most important decisions anyone can make.
Some will remain unconvinced by my argument. That is to be expected. But having said I would not attempt to pull on your heartstrings, I am going to do just that. Take a second to put yourself into the shoes of the late Tony Nicklinson, a family friend and a right-to-die campaigner who had locked-in syndrome. I am willing to bet that you can’t even imagine what his life was like—I certainly can’t. And really, isn’t that all you need to know?
It may be time to accept that no one can be completely right in the assisted dying debate; the question is too personal, too moral and too complex for a perfect answer to emerge. So it is simply a matter of opinion; and my opinion is firm.