Disabled activists have warned that the latest bid to persuade parliament to legalise assisted suicide is a threat to their “lives, independence and peace of mind”.
The latest attempt to force a law change is being led by the crossbench peer and former social worker Baroness Meacher, the chair of the campaigning organisation Dignity in Dying, formerly known as the Voluntary Euthanasia Society.
Because she came seventh in the Lords ballot for private members’ bills for the 2021-22 session of parliament, Baroness Meacher’s bill will be among those receiving priority for the limited amount of debating time available.
Her bill received its first reading in the House of Lords yesterday (Wednesday), and is likely to be debated later this year, the first time such legislation has been considered by parliament in six years.
She said her bill would “enable terminally ill, mentally competent people whose suffering is beyond the reach of palliative care to die well and on their own terms” and would “provide invaluable comfort and control to countless more who may never avail themselves of this option but would be comforted by the simple fact of its existence”.
But Not Dead Yet UK (NDY UK), which leads disabled people’s opposition to legalisation of assisted suicide in the UK, said that a change in the law would be “a threat to disabled people’s lives, independence and peace of mind”.
NDY UK said many disabled people had lost access to health and social care during the pandemic, making it even harder to secure the support they needed to live “active, independent lives” and bringing into “sharp focus” the value society places on them.
In February, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggested that many of the deaths of disabled people during the pandemic could be linked to discrimination within the healthcare system.
The following month, ONS confirmed to Disability News Service that – after adjusting for health conditions and other factors – disabled women aged between 30 and 69 with higher support needs had been 60 per cent more likely to die from COVID-19 than non-disabled women in the same age group.
At the same time, research by the care regulator uncovered more than 500 “do not attempt resuscitation” decisions put in place during the pandemic that “had not been agreed in discussion with the person, their relative or carer”.
Meanwhile, there are growing concerns from disabled activists at the increasing number of countries – including Spain, Ireland and New Zealand –that have voted or otherwise agreed to legalise assisted suicide, while others, such as Canada and the Netherlands, push to expand the boundaries of laws already in place.
In January, three UN human rights experts expressed alarm at a “growing trend to enact legislation enabling access to medically assisted dying based largely on having a disability or disabling conditions, including in old age”.
They said that, even when access to assisted suicide was restricted to those at the end of life or with a terminal illness – Baroness Meacher’s bill would restrict access to those who are terminally-ill – disabled people, older people, and particularly older disabled people, “may feel subtly pressured to end their lives prematurely due to attitudinal barriers as well as the lack of appropriate services and support”.
The three experts – the special rapporteur on the rights of disabled people, the special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, and the independent expert on older people’s human rights – said that disabled people “condemned to live in poverty due to the lack of adequate social protection can decide to end their lives as a gesture of despair”.
An NDY UK spokesperson said this week: “For essential support to become merely the alternative option to assisted suicide terrifies us.
“That is why no organisation of terminally ill or disabled people has sought a change in the law.
“We need help to live – not to die. That means investment in palliative care, pragmatic solutions to social care provision and continued financial support for our world-class NHS.
“These are the issues our parliamentarians should be concentrating on, rather than the Pandora’s Box of assisted suicide which might help the few, but at the expense of the many.”
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