Assistance to live

The Director of Public Prosecutions issued new guidelines on Friday for the prosecution of people who assist others to commit suicide. The guidelines do not change the law on assisted suicide (euthanasia), but could enable individuals to walk free from court avoid prosecution if their decision to kill someone was motivated wholly by “compassion” and that person was clearly determined to die.

In the past, I – like many others – would have seen this as a positive step. It just seemed fair that people should be able to get help ending their lives if they were experiencing severe suffering and that suffering was not going to be alleviated any other way. Why should the person who helped them carry out their wish face punishment?

However, reading blogs by disability rights activists who are opposed to assisted suicide laws has made me see that it’s not that simple. Campaigners such as Clair Lewis argue that disabled people need assistance to live, not to die, and that the guidelines bring us a step closer to the latter:

Despite the slow march towards equal rights for disabled people and those with long-term illnesses, the Government would prefer to ration healthcare, and social services are underfunded to the point that they now refuse support to anyone not in serious crisis. Meanwhile, the media is misleading the public that disabled people’s lives are terrible. They rarely consider the reasons, other than our impairments, why we might be having such a bad time. Social isolation, abuse, lack of equipment, being dumped in institutions, lack of opportunity, poor healthcare, insufficient support and inaccessible housing contribute to making people feel their lives are not worth living.

I believe the root of public opinion is fear of suffering, and I agree that nobody wants to suffer. So why are we not looking for solutions that do not involve people having to die? The concept of liberating people from suffering by offering them fatal medication is more like an idea for a horror movie than a social policy.

During my internship for disabled children’s charity Newlife, I was appalled to discover just how much suffering is caused by statutory services’ failure to provide disabled people and their carers with the equipment and support that could drastically improve their independence and quality of life. Children are unable to attend doctors’ appointments, go to school and get involved in leisure activities because the NHS refuses to provide the specialised car seats many of them need to travel safely. Others have suffered injury and seen their conditions worsen to the point of needing surgery because social services and NHS trusts spend so long arguing over who should fund specialised beds needed to enable children to sleep securely. Parents have actually been forced to consider putting their children into care homes because statutory services will not give them the equipment they need to care for them at home. Every time, it comes down to lack of funding.

When this miserable culture of neglect is combined with widespread societal ableism, is it any wonder that a disabled person might feel suicidal, or that they are too much of a burden on their families? Is it any wonder that recently disabled people might feel so afraid of what the future holds that they would choose death rather than life? Any step towards legalising assisted suicide as things currently stand now seems to me more like a deadly concession to this culture of ableism and neglect than a sensible act of compassion, an admission that the government and society as a whole would rather let disabled people die than tackle ableism and stump up the cash to enable them to live with dignity.

As Clair argues, when healthy people are suicidal, “the usual response is to try to help them live better lives, not provide a solution which encourages them to die”. Why should disabled people be treated differently? Should they not be allowed the chance to change their minds, a chance often given to non-disabled people who are supported out of suicide? The Independent reports that:

In one [recent] case a permanently disabled woman pleaded for help to end her life before a change in her circumstances – the development of a new friendship – altered her view and convinced her of the value of remaining alive.

With a state-sanctioned assisted suicide law in place, she may not have survived, particularly given the widespread attitude that disabled people’s lives are worth less – and therefore less worth fighting for – than those of non-disabled people.

There may be cases where individuals would want to die regardless of the quality of care and support they received, and I think the right to die when one has, say, only a few weeks to live is perhaps a different issue . But can we really fight for the freedom of a few to commit suicide if it leaves thousands of others at the mercy of a culture that prioritises assistance to die over assistance to live?