Baroness [Jane] Campbell has been campaigning for 12 years against efforts to legalise euthanasia and assisted suicide, and has played a leading role in the user-led campaign group Not Dead Yet UK.
But she told Disability News Service this week that her health could not take yet another lengthy campaign on such a “dark, difficult” subject.
Her decision to take a “back seat” role in the anti-legalisation campaign came after the Labour peer Lord Falconer – a former lord chancellor – published his latest private member’s bill.
This time, he wants to legalise assisted suicide for terminally-ill adults who are expected to live no more than six months.
His assisted dying bill was given its first reading in the House of Lords as the court of appeal was hearing the cases of three people seeking to overturn the current laws on assisted suicide.
Jane Nicklinson – whose husband died last year, days after losing a high court bid to give doctors the power to kill him at a time of his choosing – and Paul Lamb, who became paralysed after a road accident, are asking the court to set aside the Nicklinson ruling and order the case to be reheard.
In a separate case, also being heard this week, a disabled man known by the courts as AM, or “Martin”, wants the director of public prosecutions to provide clarity on how he can use assistance from professionals and non-family members to help kill himself.
Baroness Campbell said she viewed the need for another campaign to fight such moves to legalise assisted suicide as “depressing”.
She said: “I have been doing this for 12 years and I cannot do it again. I have done it twice now and it keeps coming back with the same velocity.
“It is so depressing and makes me feel so insecure hearing some of the reasons people are putting forward for assisted dying. It actually makes me quite ill.”
She said the huge funding problems facing the social care system added weight to arguments that legalising assisted suicide was unsafe.
She said: “Now is not the time to be discussing an easy way out for individuals who are naturally very depressed and frightened by becoming burdens on their families or for themselves personally.”
The peer also dismissed any suggestions that Lord Falconer’s latest bill was less of a threat than previous private member’s bills debated in parliament.
She said: “So many people have been given six months [to live], and five to ten years later they are bouncing around, enjoying and loving their life.”
If the bill became law, she warned, it would be “the beginning of the end”, and a few years later the door to assisted suicide for a wider group of people would be “at least open enough for a wheelchair to get through”.
She explained why she felt she could not lead another campaign against assisted suicide, and would concentrate instead on issues like social care reform. “It feels so personal, so much more than fighting on transport or jobs or inclusive education.
“This for disabled people is a real horror. It is so dark and it is so difficult to fight for. It is much easier to fight for something positive than to fight against something that is so desperate, so threatening.
“You get to a point where you think, ‘I can’t do this anymore, it is destroying my soul.’ It is the one [issue] that really, really makes me feel miserable, that a lot of people still feel about our lives that it is a life that is not worth living.”
She pointed to the comments of Cornish councillor Colin Brewer, who – in an interview last week with DNS – said that he believes there is a good argument for killing some disabled babies, which she said shows that “to some people our lives have little or no value”.
“I know that and I… find that quite hard to accept, but it is the truth.”
Baroness Campbell pleaded with other disabled people to “wake up and realise that people are trying to change the perception of who they are”.
She said: “Whatever we have campaigned for, the only thing that has made our campaigns successful is the numbers of disabled people coming forward and saying ‘not in my name’.”
And she warned that any campaign would have to double the number of activists who turned out for the first big demonstration on the issue outside parliament, after the publication of a bill by the Labour peer Lord Joffe.
But one disabled activist said he disagreed with Baroness Campbell, and that many other disabled people shared his views.
Greg Judge, who describes himself as an assisted dying campaigner, said that the disability community was “not clear cut” on the issue.
He said: “It is very much a divided issue. It is important that we have an open debate.”
Judge, who is a member of the Liberal Democrats, but was not speaking for his party, said the issue was one of “civil rights and equality”.
He said: “I campaign on it as a civil rights campaigner. People in all situations should have equal opportunities and rights to have choice and control.”
He insisted that Lord Falconer’s bill would introduce the necessary safeguards to ensure someone was “mentally competent and is not under duress”.
He said: “What these proposals bring about is choice and control for people with a terminal illness to make that decision.”
He said he accepted that doctors were not always right and could be wrong when deciding someone had less than six months to live, but what was important was “enabling people to have access to all the information”.
He said: “All you can do is make people fully informed of the correct prognosis and the very real possibility that people can continue full and active lives despite a medical prognosis.”
When asked whether the safeguards would be sufficient in a world in which relatives, friends and doctors do not always act with the best of motives, he said: “We do live in an imperfect world, but in public policy are you always going to have things put into practice in the way you want them to?
“All you can do is legislate, put in codes of practice, monitor and check cases.”
He insisted that the safeguards Lord Falconer had in mind would always be effective. “Yes, I do think they will. There is no reason why they will not.”
He added: “By ensuring the whole process is put into the control and choice of the individual, it is safe in terms of their decision.
“All you can ensure is they have all the information and they are the sole person making the decision.”
Baroness Campbell’s fellow disabled crossbench peer Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson told DNS that she was ready to take her colleague’s place in the campaign against legalisation.
After starting a discussion on social media about the issue last week, she was flooded with emails attacking her and accusing her of a “lack of compassion” – some of them even admitting that they had been asked to contact her by the pro-assisted suicide charity Dignity in Dying.
She said she was prepared for such pressure to come from the well-funded and well-organised assisted suicide lobby, and added: “If you are going to nail your colours to the mast… a lot of people will hate me for it.”
She said: “Of course we don’t want to see people in pain and suffering, but there are an awful lot of people who want to live.
“If you shift the goalposts, I think it devalues people’s lives. When you move it that far, it blurs it round the edges for a larger group of people.
“I basically do not think it should be easier for one group of people to kill themselves. I am hugely sympathetic [to the individuals who are seeking assistance to die] but I just do not think you should make it easier.”
16 May 2013