by Sophie Trist
This recent Halloween season has been an unusually scary one. There’s not much scarier for disabled and chronically ill people than physician-assisted suicide, which disguises killing as healthcare and, because of pervasive ableism in the medical system, promotes suicide assistance for people with disabilities while the able-bodied receive suicide prevention.
Unfortunately, an assisted dying bill proposed by Baroness Molly Meacher, chairwoman of Dignity in Dying (which used to be called the Voluntary Euthanasia Society), passed into the committee stage after seven hours of fierce debate during its second reading in the United Kingdom’s House of Lords on October 22. This is a private bill, meaning that it was introduced directly by Baroness Meacher and not by the UK’s government. This means the bill will now proceed to a committee for review. Polls show very broad popular support for assisted suicide among the British public, but because the UK’s government does not officially support the bill, its future is uncertain.
This bill would allow medical professionals to prescribe lethal medications to people with a terminal diagnosis who could reasonably expect to die in the next six months. The bill requires that the patient be of sound mind and free from coercion. To help ensure this, the patient’s case must be reviewed by a panel consisting of two physicians — one attending and one independent — and a High Court judge. However, as an opponent of the bill, Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, rightly pointed out,
Many vulnerable people are unaware of the dangers in going down this road, as this bill has hidden dangers, unsafe qualifying criteria, and potentially opens the door to even wider legislation… Instead, the focus should be on pressing the Government to do more to ensure good palliative and end-of-life care for everyone, everywhere in this country.
Several peers who formerly opposed assisted suicide had a change of heart and voted in favor of Baroness Meacher’s bill. Prominent among them were Lord Field, who revealed that he has a terminal diagnosis, and Baroness Davidson, who gave her maiden speech in support of the bill.
Over 60 peers spoke in opposition to the bill, among them Baroness Jane Campbell, a well-known disability rights activist who lives with spinal muscular atrophy. Lady Campbell commented that “Disabled people with terminal conditions or progressive conditions like mine are alarmed by the misleading narrative of autonomy and choice...We must not abandon those who can benefit from high-quality health and social care to the desperate temptation of assisted suicide in the guise of a compassionate choice.” Justin Welby, the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, also fiercely opposed the bill saying, “No amount of regulation can make a relative kinder or a doctor infallible; No amount of reassurance can make a vulnerable or disabled person feel equally safe, equally valued if the law is changed in this way.”
In virtually every country that has passed any kind of assisted suicide legislation, the same pattern repeats. At first, the law only permits physician-assisted suicide for terminal patients with six or fewer months to live. Almost inevitably, criteria are loosened, until countries such as Canada begin allowing disability to be grounds for physician-assisted suicide. Canada has seen a 648% increase in medically assisted deaths between 2016-2020. Belgium, which also has an extremely permissive law allowing for the euthanasia of people with psychiatric illnesses and even terminally ill children, has seen a 925% increase between 2002-2019.
Baroness Meacher’s assisted suicide bill seems modest by these standards, but making killing a component of healthcare will pave the way for the wholesale exploitation and elimination of disabled people. The very idea of assisted suicide — who gets it and who is encouraged to continue living — tells us that our lives are a burden, that death is preferable to suffering with a disability.
Allowing terminally ill people to end their suffering on their own terms may seem like the only compassionate, just course of action. But while systemic ableism remains rooted in every facet of our healthcare system, such legislation makes value judgments on people’s lives and opens our most vulnerable brothers and sisters up to pressure from relatives, caregivers, and physicians. The resources being pumped into assisted suicide campaigns should instead go toward expanding palliative and end-of-life care options for those who need them most. Assisted suicide is not the answer for those who wish to create a nonviolent, life-affirming culture that upholds the worth and dignity of every human being.