As its supporters are keen to stress, the Assisted Dying Bill which will be debated by MP’s on Friday is in theory limited in scope to those who are dying and whose life expectancy is 6 months or less. Whatever the empirical basis for this it is clear that this Bill is not intended to resolve the issue of those who wish to end their life because they have an impairment or health condition that is not terminal in character, such as the situation of Tony Nicklinson (now deceased) or Paul Lamb for example.
Yet this fact does not appear to stop these cases featuring prominently in news stories regarding the purpose of the Assisted Dying Bill. Similarly, while being clear that the Bill is based on the law in Oregon, USA, campaigners frequently cite other European countries having legislated in this area in making the case for the UK to legislate, despite such laws being fundamentally different in scope. This includes Belgium where for example deaf twins secured assistance to die having learned they were losing their sight and where euthanasia for disabled children is permitted.
This is confusing at best and frankly duplicitous at worse. It undermines the assurances that campaigners for the Bill have sought to provide – that their ambition is only to provide relief to those who are dying, that this does not concern disabled people and that concerns regarding a slippery slope are unfounded. Moreover, it is clear that some campaigners and lawyers involved in cases regarding assisted suicide regard the Bill as too limited in scope, given its failure to encompass the situation of people like Tony Nicklinson and that they will continue to pursue change via whatever means. Some regard the Assisted Dying Bill as a tactical step – its scope carefully calculated to find the path of least resistance at this point in time.
Supporters of the Assisted Dying Bill claim that its internal procedural safeguards are sufficiently robust to prevent a person’s life being taken involuntarily, or a person acting under duress in ‘choosing’ to seek assistance with accelerating their own death. Yet they do not appear to wish to engage with the fact that that since 1998 official monitoring of the Oregon law on which the Bill is based reveals that 39% of people seeking Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS) cited concern about being a burden on family, friends of care-givers as a reason and that in 2013 the figure was 49%. Only 23% cited inadequate pain control. While the overall numbers seeking PAS may be relatively small, such statistics regarding motivation cannot and must not be ignored and I do not believe supporters of the Bill have provided a satisfactory answer to this so far.
In any case, the issue of safeguarding is far broader than the procedural safeguards in the Bill. Despite progress, the rights of disabled people continue to be routinely violated and neglected in Britain – whether the experience of some of finding a ‘do not resuscitate’ notice at the end of their hospital bed without their consent, the institutionalization, inhuman and degrading treatment of people with learning disabilities or mental health conditions, widespread hostility and abuse, or massive cuts in the practical and financial support that many disabled people require to live and take part in community life. The fear many have is not necessarily that the Bill presents an immediate threat to their life, but that it and the public debates surrounding it may further diminish the value accorded to investing in disabled people’s lives when ending life becomes a valid, viable option.
On Sunday, the Observer newspaper – a long time supporter of assisted suicide – ran an editorial supporting the Assisted Dying Bill. It claimed that ‘many see a man with locked-in syndrome and see a man who should be helped to die.’ It didn’t entertain the possibility that many see a man with locked-in syndrome and regard it as a fate worse than death. What the Observer unquestioningly regards as compassion can in fact mask fear and prejudice. It remains far easier for people to view disability as a tragedy than to accept that disabled people might have good reason to live however profound their impairment.
This is the value system into which a law regarding assisted dying would be introduced and campaigners for this Bill are drawing support from such prejudices. That above anything I think explains why people have entirely legitimate fears regarding its wider impact – fears which our elected representatives must take very seriously indeed when deciding whether or not to lend their support to this profound ethical and legal shift.