Disabled campaigners have raised concerns that a major conference on “end of life choice” – being organised by the Royal Society of Medicine (RSM) – appears to be tilted in favour of speakers who want to legalise assisted suicide.
Of speakers lined up to speak at the conference who have previously expressed their views publicly on the legalisation of assisted suicide, seven have said they are in favour, while just three have made clear their opposition.
The conference on 9 February, in central London, would have been set to hear from just two people opposed to legalisation, but the user-led group Not Dead Yet UK (NDY UK) contacted RSM last month to express its concern that it had not been asked to speak.
NDY UK was not originally invited even though it played a significant role in the high court’s decision last October to reject the latest attempt to change the law.
Juliet Marlow, from NDY UK, will now speak at next week’s conference, but she appears to be one of just two of 17 speakers who are disabled or who have a long-term health condition.
The conference line-up includes Mark Jarman-Howe, a director of Dignity in Dying, which campaigns for legalisation, and barrister Victoria Butler-Cole, chair of Dignity in Dying’s sister organisation Compassion in Dying.
The conference will also hear from the widower of a terminally-ill woman who chose an assisted suicide at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, and the widow of a terminally-ill man who wanted to end his life at the clinic but was not able to.
Another speaker will be Dr Catherine Sonquist Forest, who takes part in assisted suicides as a physician in California, where the practice is now legal, and has campaigned for legalisation.
As well as Marlow, the conference will hear from two other opponents of legalisation, Professor Rob George and Baroness Finlay, both professors of palliative medicine.
A press release issued by RSM says that “polling suggests a large majority of the public want more choice and control when facing the end of life, sometimes including assisted dying”, and claims that “cases where patients and their families are frustrated about the options available to them are increasing”.
RSM says the event will “bring together key figures from many sides of these important issues” and that there has been “a cultural shift away from paternalism and towards the empowerment of patients to make decisions about their own care”.
Marlow said she was concerned that there were more pro-assisted suicide speakers lined up to contribute to the conference than those opposed to legalisation.
She said NDY UK was pleased to be invited to speak but was “concerned however that we had to ask to be included and feel strongly that we should have been invited from the outset”, although she said “this may have been an oversight on the part of the organisers”.
She said: “In our experience we have often been ignored for such events, despite the fact that Not Dead Yet UK is the only user-led organisation that opposes assisted suicide in the UK.
“We are a well-established group that was founded in 2006 and we offer an important voice to end-of-life discussions.”
She added: “We hope that any future events will include us as a matter of course and look forward to an honest and balanced conference.”
An RSM spokeswoman said the organisation had “a long-standing and strong reputation for maintaining balance in its educational programmes”.
She said that four other speakers known to oppose assisted suicide had been invited but were not able to attend.
She said: “Not Dead Yet UK were added to the programme as soon as they contacted us.
“This is an educational programme for doctors and clinicians. It includes a broad range of speakers including palliative care specialists, patient representatives, lawyers, the General Medical Council and the Crown Prosecution Service.
“We believe the presentations given by Professor Paul Cosford and Juliet Marlow will give a strong voice to those with a long-term health condition or disability.
“Strong chairmanship to facilitate balance during all RSM conference sessions is essential and for this meeting chairs with opposing views [Professor Clare Gerada is in favour of legalisation and Professor Simon Wessely is opposed] will lead each session.”
She added: “Our position is always to be a forum for debate and discussion on healthcare topics and we remain firmly committed to our independent stance and do not produce policy statements or lobby any political parties or pressure groups.”
Picture: Silent Witness star Liz Carr at a Not Dead Yet UK protest