Anti-cuts activists have warned a Commons inquiry that more than a decade of cuts to social care has stripped disabled people of their independence and would leave them at “significant risk” if parliament decides to legalise assisted suicide.
The warning came in a statement submitted to the Commons health and social care committee by Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC).
It is one of nearly 300 written statements received so far by the committee – which is conducting an inquiry into assisted suicide – and published last Thursday (11 May).
DPAC’s Ellen Clifford told the committee in the statement: “Good quality social care provision is necessary to ensure dignity in living for disabled people, including individuals receiving palliative care.
“Over a decade of cuts to social care has stripped disabled people of their independence and autonomy.
“This, alongside society’s narrative of disabled people being a burden, results in individuals feeling that the only option available to them is to end their life.”
Clifford said the current inequalities in the health and social care system left some groups “disproportionately disadvantaged” and created a “significant risk that individuals with life limiting conditions will make the choice to end their lives, not to end pain/suffering, but because it is the only way out of an impossible and undignified way of living”.
She said this was already happening in Canada with its Medical Assistance In Dying (MAID) scheme.
She pointed to the case of Amir Farsoud, who was approved for MAID after seeking assistance to die because of the poverty and fear of homelessness he was experiencing.
She also highlighted the death of Alan Nichols, who was killed through MAID despite concerns raised by his family and a healthcare professional that he did not qualify and did not have capacity to consent.
In Canada, Clifford said, “disabled people are choosing to end their lives because they do not get enough support to live”.
She warned of the difficulty of setting “limits and safeguards” and how the scope of an assisted suicide system could be gradually expanded through legal challenges by pro-euthanasia campaigners and case law.
Clifford pointed to the “extent to which disabled people’s lives are devalued and how legalisation encourages the view that disabled people are a burden on society and have a social obligation to terminate their lives”.
She said that Britain’s social security system was less generous than those in most other high-income countries, while the cost-of-living crisis had “significantly eroded the quality and dignity of living for disabled people, who are struggling to afford additional disability-related expenses”.
She said: “If disabled people are unable to meet their basic needs due to poverty, there is a danger that legalisation of assisted suicide would lead to the most disadvantaged people in society choosing death in response to the inadequacies of the social safety net.”
Professor Theo Boer, professor of health care ethics at Groningen Theological University in the Netherlands, said he had supported the Dutch legislation when euthanasia was legalised in 2002, and had reviewed euthanasia cases for the government between 2005 and 2014.
He said he had initially been convinced that the Dutch had found “the proper balance between compassion, respect for human life, and respect for individual liberties”, but he said he has grown increasingly concerned about the law.
He said the number of deaths had risen from 2,000 in 2002 to 7,666 in 2021, while hundreds more every year are believed to go unreported.
In some urban districts of the Netherlands, as many as 14 per cent of all deaths are the result of assisted suicide, he wrote.
The majority of written statements submitted to the health and social care committee’s inquiry so far have been made by healthcare professionals, particularly doctors, and by academics.
Only two disabled people’s organisations, DPAC and Not Dead Yet UK (NDY UK), appear to have submitted evidence so far.
Baroness [Jane] Campbell, a leading disabled opponent of legalisation, said in NDY UK’s written statement that assisted suicide legislation “conveys the message that living with a disability is a fate worse than death”.
She said: “The UK government has set out its commitment to the social model of disability, focusing on removing the barriers in society to enable the full participation of disabled people.
“This means building accessible environments, challenging negative attitudes towards disabled people, and ensuring that legislation and policy measures prioritise inclusion and participation.
“We believe assisted suicide legislation will undermine attempts to realise these commitments.
“It will divert attention from addressing the barriers in society to resolving the individual’s situation through death.”
Baroness Campbell said the most “significant and concerning lessons from countries which have existing legislation are the attempts to broaden the eligibility criteria once the legislation is in place”.
Some individual disabled people have submitted statements supporting legalisation to the committee.
The crossbench peer Lord [Colin] Low said he believed that “a safeguarded assisted dying law – which allowed terminally ill, mentally competent adults access to a prescription for medication which will enable them to end their life at a time of their choosing” would be “far safer and fairer than the current blanket ban on assisted dying”.
He said: “I strongly believe that a transparent assisted dying law with upfront safeguards and effective regulation would only enhance the rights and choices of disabled people at the end of life.”
Another disabled campaigner, Martin Stevens, a former chair of Disability Rights UK, also supported legalisation in his written statement.
He said he had witnessed the death of his mother, who he said had died a “slow and unpleasant death” from motor neurone disease despite the “brilliant and exemplary palliative care” she had received in a hospice.
He said: “We can and must work to improve the support systems available to Disabled People, enabling them to live well.
“We can and must also have the courage to draft legislation which will give dying people meaningful choice at the end of their lives.”
He said the argument for legalisation was “fundamentally about giving people choice and control at the end of life”.
In its written statement, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) did not express a view on assisted suicide, but it set out the equality and human rights considerations that would need to be taken into account if parliament considered legislation.
The watchdog said it agreed with the views of other national human rights institutions that legalisation could be compatible with human rights principles “as long as the legislation takes a rights-based approach and the appropriate conditions and safeguards are in place, particularly to protect the rights of disabled people”.
But it made it clear that these conditions and safeguards would include the need for disabled people to live in a society free from discrimination.
The EHRC statement said: “One of the most important protections against people feeling coerced into seeking an end to their life is to ensure social conditions, support, care and services are in place so that people with disabilities or serious or terminal illnesses do not feel that they are a burden to their loved ones or to society.
“This goes beyond adequate funding and access to health and social services, and must include active efforts to create a society where people are able to live life on equal terms, free from discrimination.”
It added: “The Government also has an important role in creating the social conditions in which legislation to enable assisted dying would not impinge on individuals’ rights.
“This includes universal access to high-quality palliative care, mental health services, and services that enable independent living.
“It also includes working actively to eliminate discrimination and to foster a society where everyone is able to enjoy their rights fully and on equal terms.”
Picture: (From left to right) Baroness Campbell, Lord Low and Ellen Clifford
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