COMMENT: Shakespeare’s bill is ‘deadly discrimination’


Dennis Queen (pictured, right), a leading member of the campaign group Not Dead Yet UK, says the support of disabled academic Dr Tom Shakespeare for the assisted dying bill ignores its dangerous flaws

What Tom has said is very disappointing to me.

Tom seems more concerned about the few in a position to make fair choices who don’t get an easy suicide laid on a plate, than the majority of folks who haven’t got the same privileges and will access the new provisions in law and kill themselves, possibly due to suffering which may have real solutions. There is nothing in the bill to examine the causes of a person’s suffering and suicidal feelings and seek other ways to reduce suffering.

It is predicted that 3,500 folks will kill themselves in the first year using this provision in law, if it comes in, more than trebling the assisted suicide figures in the law’s target group (compared to the 1,000 (on average) who already end their lives early using palliative care options, and six (again, on average) whose assisted suicides are investigated by the director of public prosecutions each year).

Tom appears to agree that there are going to be some problems with the safeguards – although he believes the number of such cases will be virtually negligible. However, there are serious and unavoidable problems with the safeguards proposed, which will affect everyone assessed under the Bill.  

The safeguards Tom refers to take up very few words of the bill and consist of a minimal two conversations with different GPs – who need not know us – and a judge in an office, signing off their paperwork as legal.

Just this week, the British Medical Journal finally picked up on doctors’ concerns about whether someone can be both suicidal and mentally competent. This is currently a concept which does not exist in medicine, and is not described in the bill, which includes no obligation to have a psychiatric evaluation before being granted an assisted suicide. 

I can’t help wondering if the absence of such a safeguard is because the proponents of the bill know that no psychiatrist will say that a suicidal person is mentally healthy. Ordinarily, being suicidal, in medical terms, means a person is not mentally competent. This then provides them with active protection and prevention from suicide.

If the bill is brought in, our GPs will have no criteria against which to decide on what is currently a non-existent medical state, so people’s lives will be decided on instead by guesswork. Being calm and sure of ourselves (the bill’s “clear and settled intent”) during two GP consultations does not mean a person is not depressed or is not having other mental health problems. 

I am glad that Tom agrees that the assisted dying bill would be easily bypassed. This is why we think it is better that assisted suicides are kept to those which happen within healthcare already, under supervision, and those others which actually get investigated, as they are now, by the director of public prosecutions, who is very sympathetic already towards assisted suicide. This law will rule the assisted suicides lawful in advance and they will not be checked afterwards to ensure that they actually were legal.

This assisted suicide bill circumvents the messy, expensive issue of meaningfully helping people who are suicidal, suffering and not imminently dying. There is no majority call for it from the people it affects, because they are already helped to die comfortably when they are actually dying. It circumvents society’s responsibility to support people in the last months of their life, as we would anyone else. It doesn’t actually award us anything resembling human rights; instead, it takes away our right to have our death, or killing (depending on how it’s done), investigated like anybody else’s. It is deadly discrimination. We all already have a more than equal right to kill ourselves.

Nobody in England and Wales should be left suffering to the point that this is an attractive option. We need to stop accepting that and ask the public to please support our call for help instead, during this time of savage cuts to almost all assistance to live better lives.

Death cannot improve our quality of life – it is not the solution to suffering. We will keep fighting this bill because the people it is actually about don’t want it, by an overwhelming majority. The public think they will, but you can’t bring in a law based on what people imagine to be true! Especially if it’s going to cause real people to die, who, let’s face it, have plenty of good reasons to feel miserable.

Let’s not play into that, let’s help make sure everyone who lives here can be helped to live the best life they can – for all of it. We should not strip away such basic human rights, based on a rough estimation of a person’s life span.

Picture by Paula Peters

  • User Ratings (6 Votes)
  • Huh is this the Lord Falkner bill if so please remove this entire post as it states it’s ONLY for people who are terminal with less that 6 months assessed time to live not someone who are suicidal are not terminally ill.

    That is two very different things and it drives me mad that the opponents try and endless drag up one excuse one after another of thing that might just happen in our imaginations like killing granny for her cash here sign this. Rather than just ask the majority of people like oh say with a referendum what they think sure have a fare campaign ‘No lies’ on either side and settle it once and for all…

    I may be a disabled man who is yes in chronic pain who has to fight every day but i am confident in my will power oh and the magic there is a cure around the corner i hear too many times to get my hopes up on that medical untruth. It’s just a way doctors try and help you cope as them off the record sometimes the truth of these miracle cures is a very small chance. The chance of dying of cancer in pain with no dignity and no real control is far far higher.

  • Betty

    I’m afraid to say you have missed/misunderstood something very important, and which has terrible implications. It is understandable; most people do not know about the workings of the mental health care system (and would be horrified). You write:

    “No psychiatrist will say that a
    suicidal person is mentally healthy.”

    Well, this much I guess is true. However that does not mean they necessarily have any legal duty of care, or even personal inclination to do anything about it.

    “Ordinarily, being suicidal, in
    medical terms, means a person is not mentally competent.”

    This is not true. For a start I think the UK term you are looking for is “mental capacity” (hence Mental Capacity Act). But the crucial thing is, being suicidal is not automatic grounds for being considered mentally incapable. It certainly doesn’t play out that way in practice. If we are talking about the level of mental incapacity required to be deprived of liberty (sectioned) and forcibly treated, then the focus appaears to be on psychosis/delusional thinking. Someone who is having a terrible time and suffering due to past and/or present experiences, or due to their current situation, for example, may well be viewed as utterly ‘sane’ and not necessarily ‘sectionable’. (Please see Kerrie Wollerton case.) Furthermore, these decisions also rely heavily on prior diagnoses, so assumptions and discrimination play a part, as well as decisions about whether a hospital stay will actually help the person. Which brings me to…

    “This then
    provides them with active protection and prevention from suicide.”

    Well, no, not necessary. Presenting to services as suicidal is extremely unlikely to result in being admitted to hospital. (Assuming this is what you mean by “active protection and prevention.) More so than ever, after cuts to inpatient beds.

    Services – inpatient and community – are so overstretched they are desperately trying to ‘contain’ the psychotic and delusional with no service capacity for those who ‘only’ need protection from self-harm/suicide, compassionate support, and therapy (beyond primary care short CBT/counselling courses).

    As mentioned, decisions are also based on prejudice and ‘received wisdom’ around diagnoses. Some service users (or would-be service users) are simply told “It is your decision if you want to commit suicide”. They are considered to have ‘capacity’ to make that decision. No matter if they are struggling with trauma related symptoms, deeply troubled, in need of compassionate therapy, suffering effects of childhood abuse, if some recent event has finally ‘tipped them over’, or if they simply cannot keep coping with all these things without support (which has been cut).

    As I see it, this makes the idea of assisted suicide very, very dodgy ground for mental health patients. There is already a huge swathe of the (would-be) service user population, with diagnosed mental health issues, who would be given the go-ahead for assisted suicide despite the fact that no-one has tried/funded services that would actually help them.