People with Disabilities in the UK fear assisted suicide

Editor’s note. The following is from the blog of Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition.

Peter Saunders

Peter Saunders, a leader with the Care Not Killing Alliance in the UK, and a speaker at the upcoming Third International Symposium on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, recently published an article concerning the recent Comres poll that found that 70% of people with disabilities were concerned that if legal, they would be pressured into dying by assisted suicide. Saunders stated:

Changing the law on assisted suicide would put pressure on people with disabilities to die by assisted suicide, according to new research. The new Comres poll found that 70 per cent of people with disabilities were concerned that such a change would lead to ‘‘pressure being placed on people with disabilities to end their lives prematurely’’

The survey, commissioned by Scope, the leading disability charity, also showed that over one in three (35%) of people with disabilities believed any move to decriminalise assisted suicide would place that sort of pressure on them personally.

Amongst blind and visually impaired people the figure was 49%.

Over half (56%) of all people with disabilities surveyed also said it would mean that it would be ‘‘detrimental to the way that people with disabilities are viewed by society as a whole’’.

Richard Hawkes, chief executive of Scope, is reported in the Daily Telegraph as saying:

Assisted suicide is a complex and emotional issue, and there are loud and passionate voices on both sides of the debate…… But while high profile lawyers, doctors and celebrities such as Terry Pratchett and Patrick Stewart grab the headlines, the views of the thousands of ordinary disabled people who could be affected by this issue are rarely listened to.

Our survey findings confirm that concerns about legalising assisted suicide are not just held by a minority, but by a substantial majority of those this law would affect.

‘‘Disabled people are already worried about people assuming their life isn’t worth living or seeing them as a burden, and are genuinely concerned that a change in the law could increase pressure on them to end their life.’’

Mr Hawkes also called on the Government to establish a new independent commission to explore the question of whether assisted dying should be legalised.

Lord Falconer’’s highly controversial Commission on Assisted Dying, due to report this autumn, has been criticised for being ‘‘unnecessary, unbalanced and lacking in transparency’’.

In particular, whilst the five leading disability rights groups in the UK (SCOPE, NCIL, UKDPC, RADAR and Not Dead Yet) oppose any change in the law, the only disabled person on the panel is an advocate for decriminalising assisted suicide who acts as a spokesperson for Dignity in Dying, formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society.

Under the Suicide Act 1961 those who ‘‘encourage or assist’’ someone else to commit suicide may face a prison sentence of up to 14 years. But the Director of Public Prosecutions, in new guidelines issue in February 2010, has indicated that people who are ‘‘wholly motivated by compassion’’ are less likely to face charges.

The fact that there have been very few prosecutions under this new arrangement has worried disability rights groups who are concerned that some people believe people with disabilities are better off dead and will put subtle pressure on them to end their lives out of ‘misguided compassion’.

They need a strong law in place to act as a deterrent in order that they may feel safe. It was precisely for this reason that the group ‘Not Dead Yet’ launched their ‘Resistance Campaign’ last June aimed at stopping any further erosion of the existing law.

Last November Margo Macdonald’’s End of Life Assistance (Scotland) Bill, which would have legalised both assisted suicide and euthanasia for disabled people was rejected by the Scottish Parliament by an overwhelming majority of 85 to 16 after the general public expressed fears about disabled and other vulnerable people being put under pressure to end their lives.

The latest poll result will come as a blow to Dignity in Dying who have campaigned for a change in the law.

Whilst they have insisted that they want a change in the law only for mentally competent people who are terminally ill, some of their spokespeople, amongst them multiple sclerosis campaigner Debbie Purdy, have a disability but are not dying.

This has raised serious questions about their real agenda.

The fact is that legalizing assisted suicide threatens people with disabilities and other vulnerable people who are already devalued by society. Negative attitudes and perceptions of people with disabilities will create subtle pressure that they “choose” assisted suicide.

But since when was this issue ever about choice?

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