Disabled activists have condemned a new report – funded by pro-euthanasia campaigners – that suggests assisted suicide could and should be legalised in England and Wales.
Leading campaigners have described the report, published by The Commission on Assisted Dying, as an attack on disabled people.
The report concludes that assisted suicide could “safely” be offered to people who are terminally-ill, if they are believed to have less than a year to live, are over 18, and satisfy certain other “eligibility criteria”.
Under a framework proposed by the commission, a dying person who met the criteria would be able to ask their doctor to prescribe a dose of medication to end their life, which they would have to take themselves.
But disabled activist Alice Maynard, who gave evidence to the commission, described the report as “a major attack on disabled people”, particularly when taken alongside the government’s assault on disability benefits and an increase in public hostility towards disabled people.
She said the fact that disabled people were having their “social infrastructure” and support “systematically destroyed” made the report “a huge threat”.
Dr Kevin Fitzpatrick, the Disability Rights Commission’s commissioner with responsibility for Wales throughout its seven-year existence, and a member of Not Dead Yet UK (NDY UK), the campaigning network of disabled people opposed to legalisation, added: “I fear this is the worst attack on the safety of disabled people I’ve ever known when we see also the swingeing cuts to welfare, health and social care, support we rely on for our very lives.”
The report’s conclusion has disappointed but not surprised disabled activists, as the commission was chaired by the former Labour minister Lord Falconer and part-funded by the author Terry Pratchett, who have both campaigned for legalisation.
The commission was set up by the pro-assisted suicide charity Dignity in Dying, while its other funder was Bernard Lewis, founder of the retail chain River Island, who has also spoken out in favour of legalisation.
The 11-strong commission itself was packed with supporters of legalisation. Disability News Service revealed in December 2010 that at least eight of the commissioners had previously supported a change in the law to allow some kind of assisted suicide.
One of the 11 commissioners, the Rev Canon Dr James Woodward, canon of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, opposed the report’s conclusions.
Baroness [Jane] Campbell, NDY UK’s convenor, said the biased membership of the commission left a “big question mark” over its validity.
She said the “biggest reason given for wanting to die early” was “being a burden on families and others”, which “must be addressed and resolved” before considering any legislation.
She added: “We believe there is much evidence in the commission’s findings to show how difficult it is for people to receive a good level of palliative care and social care across the country.”
She said the NHS was not in a position to allow people to have “a proper choice”, with many “left without dignity or pain relief, which therefore demonstrates clearly why individuals faced with this possibility say they want help to die rather than suffer this lack of support”.
“We want to change bad attitudes, lack of social care and health care, before thinking about the possibility of assisted dying.”
Maynard agreed. The report points to the need for “good quality end-of-life care available in all settings” and “a good level of care and support services” alongside any legalisation, but she said that in reality the quality of health and social care was now “going backwards”.
Ian Loynes, chief executive of Southampton Centre for Independent Living, said disabled people were “fighting a war of attrition” against the “continual barrages” of those trying to secure legalisation, and were “frightened at the implications of missing any of these volleys”.
He was another to highlight the social care system’s failure “to meet even a very basic level of dignity, choice and care” which he said was “at complete odds to the commission’s fine words on the need to ensure provision of good quality end-of-life care”.
Loynes said that any legalisation would simply absolve society and the government from “their caring responsibilities”.
Phil Friend, another leading disabled campaigner and member of NDY UK, said the commission’s conclusions were “both disappointing and unsurprising”.
He said there was no way to “safely” offer a choice of assisted suicide. “How do we know whether people have been influenced by others? How sure are we that people are likely to die in 12 months?”
He also raised concerns about the two “independent” doctors who would have to approve every assisted suicide, and pointed out that “diagnosis and prognosis often change over time, as do people’s desires to live or die”.
Friend added: “Many disabled people can’t get the basic support that they need to live independently as spending cuts bite.
“Uncertainty and fear are the order of the day for many of us. It’s made worse when there are noises about changing the law to make euthanasia possible.”
Concerns about the commission have been further raised after its report revealed that just two disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) – Disability Awareness in Action and Disability Alliance – were asked to give evidence. Both of them declined.
In practice, the disability movement boycotted the commission, as not a single DPO appears to have given evidence.
Other individuals and organisations that declined to give evidence after being asked to do so by the commission include Baroness Campbell, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
Demos declined to comment on its failure to invite more DPOs to give evidence.
5 January 2012