We need a right to live, not a right to die

A friend of mine who uses a wheelchair was recently approached by a stranger who crossed over the road to talk to her. Without knowing anything about her, he told her that he supported her right to die with dignity through assisted suicide. She told him that she was more concerned with her right to live than her right to die.

This man’s clear implication was that any disabled person would want to die. The assumption that a disabled person’s life is not worth living lies only slightly below the surface of the debate on the Assisted Dying Bill, presented in the House of Lords today.

In the midst of depression some years ago, I contemplated suicide several times. I am more grateful than I can say that I never acted on those thoughts and that I have them no longer. I am grateful to the friends who helped to dissuade me. Today I am wondering whether, if I had also had a physical illness, some of them would have encouraged me to kill myself.

I am not suggesting that all supporters of the Assisted Dying Bill take this attitude. However, the debate in the media is going ahead with very little reference to the realities of life for the thousands of disabled people thrown into poverty and isolation by the abolition of Disability Living Allowance, the end of the Independent Living Fund, the bedroom tax, the biased Atos assessments, the cuts to Disabled Students’ Allowance and the removal of hundreds of local disability services following cuts to local authority budgets.

It is well documented that some of these cuts have already led to deaths. They will lead to more. There is something horrifically ironic about Parliament debating the right of disabled people to die (if they choose to do so) when they have recently approved measures that have led to disabled people dying when they have not chosen to do so.

Middle class columnists in both right-wing and left-wing newspapers are demanding their right to die in articles that attribute the opposition to narrow-minded religious leaders. You would never guess from these columns that most disability rights campaigners are against this bill.

The campaign group Not Dead Yet – formed by disabled people opposed to euthanasia – points out that “Opposition to assisted dying is not confined to the medical profession and religious groups. Most importantly, it includes the very people whom would be most affected by any change in legislation.”

Significantly, not one disabled people’s organisation is backing assisted dying.

Today’s Times lists supporters and opponents of the bill. Thankfully, they do list “disabled campaigners” amongst the bill’s opponents, but they are last on the list, after “doctors”, “religious figures” and “party leaders”. Are the views of disabled people not more important than that?

The media have focused on the cases of terminally ill individuals who have wanted the right to assisted suicide. I have no wish to judge these people. I cannot even begin to imagine what they are going through. If they are certain that they wish to kill themselves, it would of course be wrong to treat their relatives as out-and-out murderers for helping them to do so. This is very different from arguing that this should be legal, let alone that mechanisms should be set up to kill such people in hospitals or similar settings with state approval.

We are not debating an abstract ethical question in a university seminar. We are discussing real ethics in a real context. I will not support assisted dying when there is a good chance that people might choose it because they cannot cope with physical or mental pain that could be alleviated by treatment or services that are denied to them by a state that slashes services for the most vulnerable while ploughing billions into weapons.

There are some on the left who oppose the government’s cuts but make no mention of them when they declare their support for assisted dying. Then again, there is a hideous consistency in the views of former archbishop George Carey, who strongly backs welfare cuts and now wants those who suffer from them to be allowed to die.

The few ministers who back assisted dying include care minister Norman Lamb, who has colluded with cuts and presided over growing poverty amongst disabled people. It is also supported by Anna Soubry, a “defence” minister whose job involves maintaining a military system that had killed thousands of innocent people in recent years and has the potential to kill millions more.

There are those who will dismiss my argument against the Assisted Dying Bill on the ground that I am religious. Thankfully, most non-religious people are not this prejudiced. My position is shared by many people who do not share my religion. For me, it is my Christian faith that leads me to support equality and human rights, but these principles are supported equally strongly by others. My faith also leads me to believe that society should share its resources and give to each according to their need.

I will never support any proposal based on the idea that one person’s life is worth less than another’s, or that offers death as an alternative to a decent welfare state.

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8 responses to “We need a right to live, not a right to die

  1. Thank you for your post and you make some very relevant points. All persons should have a right to life and the austerity cuts imposed on Local Authority grants and the local authorities then passing these on through reduce care packages, goes some distance to limit this right to life.

  2. What was said to your friend was disgusting, and your argument is compelling, but I don’t think you account for the people who do want a right to die. Yes, you’re right, it’s more important to have a right to live, and if drugs and therapies exist to support this, they should be made available. No one who is calling for this bill is opposing a right to live. And no one has any business judging whether or not someone else should end their life. However, if I reach a point in my live where I am faced by what I consider to be unbearable suffering, and there is no prospect of this being alleviated, then I want someone to help me end my life, presuming I’m not able to do this myself. It seems to me, that just as we have no business telling someone they should end their life, we have no business telling someone who suffers in this way, and is going to die soon anyway, that they must see their disease out to its bitter end. It is believed that the numbers of people who actually choose to do this will be very small, and of course it is essential that there are excellent safeguards in place to ensure that no one is coerced into ending their life. I don’t know whether this bill is the right one, but I do believe we need something like it, for the few people who want to make this choice. If you don’t believe it is right to make this choice when you are very ill, then you don’t need to make it. But that doesn’t mean that you should stop me from making it.

    • Thanks for your comment about my friend’s experience. I appreciate that not everyone who supports assisted dying is implying that disabled people’s lives are worth less. I firmly believe that some are saying this, but there are others – such as you – who acknoweldge how dreadful this is.

      You are right to say that “if drugs and therapies exist to support this, they should be made available”. But this leaves us with the question: is it right to leaglise assisted dying at a time when those drugs and therapies are being made *less* available?

      The reality is that there are disabled people enduring pain that they would not be enduring if there was a decent welfare state. Some might choose to die rather than endure such suffering. If we can prevent this suffering, we should do that, not help them to die.

      Of course, I accept that there is some suffering that cannot be alleviated. Therefore, if we build a society that meets people’s needs, that denies nobody support that relieves their suffering, that pushes nobody into poverty or loneliness, then I would not be against people choosing to kill themselves. But until such a society exists, we cannot simply operate as if it did.

      Thanks again,

      Symon

  3. Since writing this blog post, it’s been drawn to my attention that there is a disabled people’s group campaigning *for* assisted dying. They’re called “Disabled Activists for Dignity in Dying”. I am sorry for my mistake in saying that no disabled people’s groups support the bill.

    However, the vast majority of disabled people’s groups are opposed to assisted dying. It says something that “Disabled Activists for Dignity in Dying” are calling on disability groups to adopt a “neutral stance”. They seem aware that they have no chance of persuading them to support assisted dying.

    This is a reminder that most of those most likely to be affected by assisted dying legislation are in fact against it.

  4. A few questions:
    Why do you believe in this archaic notion that you have to remain ‘living’ until your body gives out? Why does anyone have to be in ‘pain or suffering’ to have the ‘right to die’?
    What right do you or anyone else have to impose your moral or religious standards on any other individual, on this subject?
    If this a personal choice made by someone of sound mind, and uninfluenced by others, what do you or anyone else, or any government have to do with it?
    I had no choice over entering this world – so why should I have no choice over exiting it? Is it not my right as a human being if I so wish to to, to choose when to exit the world?

    • Jack; All persons should have a right to live as they wish, provided the wish is legal. The problem with a right to die is ensuring it is the individual persons wish and not one that was influenced by others. There are many ploys that others could use including intimidation, appealing to your desire not to be a burden, being financially, emotionally, etc, stressing their own limitations, that are being tested, in fact anything to persuade you that it would be better if you were not here.

      It is for these reasons that the right to die needs to be considered very carefully by the law making authorities, as safeguarding needs to be a priority.

    • Thanks for your questions, Jack. However, you seem to be challenging arguments that I haven’t actually made. At no point in my article did I suggest that everybody has to remain living until their body gives out. Nor did I try to impose my moral and religious standards on others. I was making an argument about a proposed law and raising concerns about how the law would work in practice (concerns shared by many non-religious people, as well as many religious people). You haven’t really engaged with this argument, which makes it difficult for me to reply to your reply.

      However, you do make a point about people making a decision that is not influenced by others. Surely all human decisions are, to some extent or another, influenced by others? We do not make decisions in a vacuum. My concern is that at present, somebody faced with a choice of suicide would have less choice and less autonomy because they are unlikely to be offered as many other choices as they should be – including support from a decent welfare state.

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