Disabled activists have expressed elation and relief at the overwhelming defeat of an assisted suicide bill in the House of Commons, but fear that another attempt to change the law may not be far away.
The private members’ bill put forward by Labour MP Rob Marris, which would have legalised assisted suicide for people said to have up to six months to live, was defeated by 330 votes to 118.
But there are concerns that pro-assisted suicide campaigners are already plotting their next move to try to force through legalisation, either through the courts or parliament.
An almost identical bill was introduced by the Labour peer – and the party’s shadow justice secretary – Lord Falconer in the House of Lords in June.
And there was also concern that almost as many Labour MPs voted in favour of the bill as voted against it, including several members of Jeremy Corbyn’s new shadow cabinet, such as Maria and Angela Eagle, Hilary Benn, Kate Green, Kerry McCarthy, Rosie Winterton and the new shadow work and pensions secretary Owen Smith.
Disabled campaigners, many of them from the user-led grassroots group Not Dead Yet UK (NDY UK), were outside the Houses of Parliament in force while MPs debated the bill inside, and they easily outnumbered supporters of the legislation.
Brian Hilton, digital campaigns officer for Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People, said: “When the votes were counted and it was announced the bill had been defeated, it was definitely a ‘punch the air’ moment.”
The coalition has taken a formal position opposing assisted suicide, and played a key role in the campaign to oppose the bill, alongside NDY UK and Disabled People Against Cuts.
Hilton said: “Our celebrations were more out of relief than triumphalism. Also, we are well aware that the spectre of assisted suicide still remains.
“Sooner or later disabled people will fight for our lives, for our very existence, all over again.”
He also expressed concerns about support within the Labour party for assisted suicide.
Dennis Queen, an NDY UK activist, said the celebrations of disabled campaigners when they heard the result of the vote, at about 2.20pm on Friday, were “so loud that I had to put my ear defenders on”.
She said she was “really elated” with the victory and believed that she and others had been “overwhelmed” by the vote’s outcome, partly because it was so “decisive”.
She said: “For once I feel the MPs have listened to us. They realised that you cannot bring in a law just to bring peace of mind to non-disabled people.”
She said disabled opponents of legalisation had already begun writing to the Labour party – whose new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, did not vote on the bill – to complain about Lord Falconer’s appointment as shadow justice secretary.
Queen said: “We have achieved a lot this time. It really has been a massive piece of collective work. We will sit and rest [but only]for five minutes.”
Deborah Caulfield, another NDY UK member who took part in the demonstration outside parliament, said: “It was just wonderful to be among so many disabled people. It felt very safe, very right.
“In terms of solidarity, it felt that whatever the outcome we were going to be strong, we were there for each other.”
Caulfield said there was “uproar, astonishment and spontaneous hugs” when the result of the vote was announced.
She said: “I was hugely delighted, but also very proud. I felt that the campaign group, which was quite disparate, fragmented and ‘virtual’, had really achieved something fantastic, and on a shoestring compared with that lot [Dignity in Dying].
“I was proud to have been a small part of it.”
But she added: “I think the arguments have to continue. There is a reality that the ‘pro’ lot do not get it.
“I am now in fighting mode – fighting to enlighten on the reality of disabled people’s lives in a non-emotional way.”
Ruth Gould, artistic director of DaDaFest, was among those to praise the campaigning efforts of Not Dead Yet UK.
In a regular newsletter to DaDaFest supporters, she said she was “delighted that the bill was overturned and with such a big majority”.
She added: “My thanks and admiration go to Liz Carr and the Not Dead Yet campaign team – they have worked above and beyond to champion the rights of so many – guys you are brilliant.”
Despite several attempts to ask Dignity in Dying what its immediate campaigning plans were, its press office refused to return calls from Disability News Service by 6pm this evening (Thursday).