The Liberal Democrats have been accused of an “appalling attack on disabled people” after they admitted that their party policy is to call for assisted suicide to be legalised.
The party issued a press release at the weekend welcoming what it said was the announcement by a minister that he was considering issuing a call for evidence on the issue of legalising assisted suicide.
It later emerged that the comments by justice secretary Robert Buckland – in which he said he would “actively consider” a call for evidence over the next few months – were made during the general election campaign, but were only published this week.
The Ministry of Justice claimed the government’s position had not changed and that no such call for evidence was being considered.
But the Liberal Democrat press release, issued in the name of Christine Jardine MP, its spokesperson in the Commons on both home affairs and on women and equalities, welcomed what she said was the “growing swell of public support” for a change in the law.
When other senior Lib Dem MPs have previously spoken out on assisted suicide, the party has said only that there should be a free vote on the issue, with MPs and peers allowed to “vote in line with their own views”.
But a Liberal Democrat spokesperson told Disability News Service this week that it had been party policy since 2004 to call for a change in the law, and he added: “That policy remains as does the policy for MPs to have a free vote.”
A spokesperson for Not Dead Yet UK, the leading disabled people’s campaign group opposing the legalisation of assisted suicide (pictured), said the Liberal Democrat adoption of a policy in favour of assisted suicide was “one more appalling attack on disabled people by the death lobby”.
He said: “We are disabled people who fiercely oppose the legalised killing of us.
“Scattered across the world, wherever killing has been legalised, the impact on disabled people has been murderous.
“The killing lobby try to argue that it isn’t a slippery slope, but the evidence doesn’t lie.”
He called on all Liberal Democrat members to “protest loudly” about the party’s policy.
Nikki Kenward, campaign director of The Distant Voices, a user-led campaign group which opposes euthanasia and assisted suicide, said: “Capricious as always, the Lib Dems opt for the easy road.
“Not content with cutting the benefits (in coalition) of the neediest in society, they take the perceived next logical step and try to open the door to further muddying the waters for those needing support at this most critical time.
“No push here for improved palliative care services; this might cost something. [They are] Conservatives at heart.
“Still, they can always backtrack and apologise when the horse has properly bolted.”
Dennis Queen, a disabled activist and member of NDY UK, said it was “shocking and disappointing” that the Lib Dems were “not in favour of sick and disabled people’s equal human rights under the law”.
She said: “When is some party going to stand up for our equal right to be supported to live as decent and comfortable life as possible first, instead of promoting a final solution?
“Maybe if we could establish that, then we could talk about this.
“Instead sick and disabled people are actually already dying in droves due to neglect and poverty. We don’t need more ways to be killed.”
Buckland this week told Disability News Service (DNS) in a statement: “I have the utmost sympathy for all those going through the pain of watching their loved ones deal with life-threatening and degenerative conditions.
“Any change in the law around these terribly saddening cases must be for MPs to consider as a matter of individual conscience, rather than a decision for government.”
But he has not yet been able to explain the discrepancy between this statement and the comments he made during the general election campaign.
Only two months ago, DNS revealed how the Liberal Democrats were unable to explain why several of their general election policies on disability had been copied word-for-word from their 2017 manifesto.
Yesterday (Wednesday), Jardine said in a statement: “While the Liberal Democrats adopted policy in 2004 to support legislation for medical assistance to die, subject to rigorous safeguards to prevent abuse, this was not in our manifesto in 2019.
“Liberal Democrat MPs all have their own views and any vote in parliament has always respected the right to freedom of conscience for all parliamentarians.
“I believe the current blanket ban on all assisted dying helps nobody and creates a two-tier system where those who can afford the £10,000 price tag can have an assisted death in Switzerland, while those who cannot take matters into their own hands at home.
“I fully appreciate and understand the views of the groups representing the views of the disabled community.
“I am simply backing a review to see how the law could be improved; this would not affect disabled people.”
In last week’s debate, Tory MP Fiona Bruce pointed out that an annual government report into an assisted suicide scheme in Oregon, USA, found that “more than half of those applying now cite ‘fear of being a burden’ as their major end-of-life concern”.
And, she said, in Canada, in just four years, under a law that has allowed terminally-ill people to request assisted suicide and euthanasia, safeguards had been ignored and removed and the law extended to non-terminally-ill people, including those with depression.
The justice minister Chris Philp told the debate that the UK government’s position had not changed.
He said: “The government are neutral in the debate on this issue and have no policy position on it.
“Although all of us, including me, have our own personal views about this issue, the government’s position is that it is for parliament to decide great issues of conscience, including this one.”
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