Is Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill needed to safeguard a vital personal freedom, or will it be used to devalue the lives of people with long-term and progressive conditions? We hear the arguments from both sides of the debate…
Dr Kevin Fitzpatrick OBE
Spokesperson/Convener of the Not Dead Yet UK Campaign
Advocates of assisted suicide say that it is for people who are terminally ill, not disabled people. But assisted suicide will not be confined to those dying imminently. Falconer’s Bill includes people with progressive conditions.
And just look at how the wealthy lobby for legalizing assisted suicide always use (or abuse) severely disabled people who are not terminally ill, to garner untutored public support for assisted suicide. Severely disabled people deeply grieving their losses with their newly discovered motor neurone disease, despairing of their futures, believing death is their only option.
The pro-assisted suicide lobby commissions polls that ask questions which are confusing or misleading. People believe they are voting in favour of an image they hold of a peaceful, painless death at home, surrounded by loving family. When they are shown the more realistic scenarios that such a law would bring about, their support falls away dramatically. According to a ComRes poll published on 18th July this year, 43% remain for, 43% decide against and the rest ‘don’t know’.
Disabled people do not currently receive adequate protection from either the Courts or the police. If there is not enough support made available to suicidal disabled people from disabled people’s organisations, that is generally because we are starved of resources. There are no celebrity millions for us; instead, we’re threatened out of existence by cuts, or else forced to work as volunteers on nil resources to resist this growing death cult.
At present, the Courts are not given to examining the suicidal feelings of disabled people. They, like the general public, attribute an individual’s desire to die to their disabilities, rather than to the circumstances of their lives – which could include the loss of a spouse, confinement to a nursing home, or the pressure of feeling that they are burdens on their families. They superficially conclude that the individual is not ‘suicidal’ – but also not treatable, nor deserving of support to live and love.
Disabled people and those with incurable chronic diseases have experienced a long history of persecution and genocide. It is too easily forgotten that during the 1930’s, 200,000 people with disabilities were put to death by Nazi physicians who were inspired by contemporary euthanasia movements in England and the US, long before the racial genocide began.
People with visible disabilities have historically been forced to hide from the public gaze. Only a short while ago disabled people were routinely imprisoned in institutions. More recently, there has been an international rise in the frequency of hate crimes against people with disabilities. Contempt for life with disability surrounds us.
In this context, we should be granted greater protections for our lives, as a minority group at risk – not having what little little protection from harm and attack we can still count on stripped away from us.
Coordinator of Disabled Activists for Dignity in Dying
Last month, I was outside the House of Lords in my wheelchair, campaigning alongside relatives, disabled and non-disabled supporters and individuals who themselves are facing the end of their lives due to terminal illness. We were there to let the Peers entering the House know that we believe the choice of an assisted death should be available to competent dying people – and importantly, that 80% of the British public agree with such a law.
Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill successfully passed its first major hurdle, Second Reading, and will now be scrutinised line-by-line in Committee Stage. But what does the Bill actually ask for? It offers the safeguarded choice, at the end of life, to control one’s death, providing strict criteria are met. The person must be terminally ill, mentally competent, of adult age, have six months or less to live and go through a ‘cooling off period’ once the initial decision has been made.
Furthermore, strict upfront safeguards include the agreement of two independent doctors and that any life-ending medication has to be self-administered; no one else can do it for them.
Some people ask why they can’t travel abroad to die. Unfortunately, that is not possible for every dying person who wants the choice. To travel you need to be well enough to make the journey and have enough money – and why should they have to travel abroad to die as they choose?
Some dying Britons have felt the need to take control of the illness that is killing them by attempting to end their own lives at home, sometimes alone to avoid implicating loved ones and putting them at risk of a 14-year prison sentence. The law is not working.
As Coordinator of a campaign group led by disabled people, which supports the right for terminally ill people to choose the time and manner of their own deaths, I am often asked how the new law would affect disabled people.
If you read the Bill, there is not a single mention of ‘disabled people’ or ‘disability’. This is because the Bill is solely focused on the rights of those who are dying, and would not change anyone’s right to live and seek their own independence.
Recent polling of disabled adults by YouGov showed that 79% supported a change in the law for terminally ill adults. Far fewer support a law for assisted suicide, which would offer choice to disabled people who are not dying.
This corresponds with what leading disabled people, such as Professor Stephen Hawking, have said when talking about their support for assisted dying. Our group does not support assisted suicide; Lord Falconer’s Bill is about terminally ill people controlling their imminent and unavoidable deaths.
With a change in the law on assisted dying, no more people will die – but fewer people will suffer.
What the Bill Says
– A person who is terminally ill [that is, diagnosed by a registered medical practitioner as having an inevitably progressive condition that cannot be reversed by treatment, and a result is reasonably expected to die within six months] may request and lawfully be provided with assistance to end his or her own life
– A person has a clear and settled intention to end their own life if:
(a) the person has made and signed a declaration to that effect in the presence of a witness (who must not be a relative or directly involved in the person’s care or treatment)
(b) that declaration has been countersigned by the registered medical practitioner from whom the person has requested assistance to end their life (“the attending doctor”); and another registered medical practitioner (“the independent doctor”) who is not a relative, partner or colleague in the same practice or clinical team, of the attending doctor;
– The attending doctor (but not the independent doctor) may, but need not be, the registered medical practitioner who diagnosed that the person is terminally ill or first informed the person of that diagnosis.
– The attending doctor and the independent doctor must be satisfied that the person making it has been fully informed of the palliative, hospice and other care which is available to that person.
– This Act does not extend to Scotland or Northern Ireland.
You can read the Assisted Dying Bill in full here.