The shadow disability minister has admitted that many disabled activists may be “horrified” and “outraged” to learn that she is in favour of legalising assisted suicide.
And she has hinted strongly that she will consider resigning from her post because of her position on legalisation, depending on the response from disabled people and their organisations.
Continuing efforts by the euthanasia lobby to persuade parliament to introduce a legal right for terminally-ill people to have medical assistance to kill themselves are fiercely opposed by much of the disabled people’s movement, who see the battle to prevent such a law as a key disability rights issue.
But in an interview with Disability News Service (DNS), Labour’s Kate Green said she had never hidden her support for legalisation, and had backed the bill put forward in the last parliament by the Labour peer Lord Falconer.
That bill will provide the model for the new assisted dying bill that has been introduced into the Commons by Labour MP Rob Marris, and which will be debated by MPs on 11 September.
Green said: “I’m in favour of the concept. Assuming it’s going to be similar to the one [brought forward by Lord Falconer] that was debated in the Lords in the last parliament.”
She made it clear that she did not accept any of the key arguments put forward by disabled opponents of legalisation, such as the campaigning organisation Not Dead Yet UK, whose most high-profile member is the disabled crossbench peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell.
One of the key concerns about legalising assisted suicide, from organisations such as Not Dead Yet UK, is that it will not be possible to secure safeguards that will protect all disabled people, particularly from asking for an assisted suicide when they do not want to die.
Green said she accepted that “humans can never get everything right”, but that she had “no reason to believe that it is not” possible to draw up safeguards that would ensure no-one died unnecessarily.
She added: “If I’m not satisfied that we have been able to come up with legislation that provides those safeguards, naturally I won’t support it. I don’t want a single unnecessary or unwanted death.”
But she said that if the bill became law, and she was wrong, and those safeguards failed, she “will live with being wrong but true to my beliefs”.
Many disabled activists have highlighted what they say is the absurdity – and the danger – of seeking to legalise assisted suicide when disabled people still do not have the right to live independently.
But Green denied that it would be reckless to even consider introducing an assisted dying bill before there was a right to independent living.
She said: “I don’t make that assumption as being necessarily the case. They are equally valid and both have to be done, in my view.”
She added: “You don’t stop advancing on one agenda because another agenda is on a different part of the journey.
“I don’t see the assisted dying legislation as the kind of immediate threat that [some disabled people] are suggesting it would be.”
She said that she would not rule out backing a legal right to independent living, and that Labour – before the general election – had “signalled we would wish to secure that right, and if legislation was one of the things that it took then had I become the minister for disabled people I would have wanted to continue those discussions”.
She said: “My personal priority is to secure independent, dignified lives for disabled people.”
Green also dismissed fears that severe funding pressures in the NHS would make an assisted suicide law even more dangerous for disabled people.
She said: “It would certainly create a context for it. I don’t know that it would make it harder, because these decisions are going to be acute and rare and they will not be taken lightly or without engagement from a lot of people.
“There will be a multiplicity of components [to the process of securing an assisted suicide] and [all of the people involved] would all need to collectively [take] a decision.”
Green said her decision to back legalisation was due to “personal experience” as well as “some of the conversations with people who have seen loved ones die very painfully, very unhappily and distressingly and where there have been open conversations in the family in which that individual has wanted to be assisted to end their life and it hasn’t been possible”.
She said: “It’s a huge conscience issue, it’s not a political issue. It’s very much about people’s sense of what’s right.”
Green also insisted – as have Marris and Lord Falconer and many of their supporters – that the assisted dying bill was “not about disabled people” but was about “terminally-ill adults who make fully competent decisions”.
When DNS asked Green whether she believed that all terminally-ill people were also disabled people, she said she would “have to think very carefully about that before I answer it”.
Green also said she did not “readily accept” the so-called “slippery slope” argument, which warns that even if assisted suicide was legalised for a small section of people – such as terminally-ill people told they have less than six months to live – it would inevitably be widened out to other groups.
Opponents of legalisation point to the situation in Belgium, where people with autism, anorexia, borderline personality disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, and manic depression have all been given an assisted suicide.
But Green said: “I don’t think I can draw any conclusions at all from Belgium about what might happen at some point in the future in relation to legislation that we haven’t got yet in the UK.”
Green insisted that although she might be “out-of-step with a number of organisations, I am also aware that I will be in-step with the feelings of many, many individuals”.
She said: “My job is to be in what I believe in my conscience is the right place to be.”
And she said she had no current intention of resigning from her role as shadow minister for disabled people over her support for legalisation of assisted suicide.
She said: “I have no intention of not continuing unless and until it becomes clear to me that I should not do so. That is not my feeling now.”
She said that disabled people “may be horrified, people may be outraged” when they learn of her position on assisted suicide.
But she said: “They are entitled to feel what they feel.”
She added: “I would like to hear direct from disabled people and from organisations… in order that I can assess the range of views and how people feel about this and the concerns that they have.
“I have no intention of not continuing unless and until it becomes clear to me that I should not do so. That is not my feeling now.”
In response to Green’s interview with DNS, Baroness Campbell said she would seek an urgent meeting with her “in order to explore, in more detail, why this proposed assisted suicide legislation is such a threat to disabled people’s safety, feelings of self-worth and right to equality”.
Ellen Clifford, a member of the steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “Kate Green’s support for the assisted dying bill reflects a lack of commitment towards the principles of choice and equality for disabled people.
“The question of assisted suicide is often mistakenly viewed as being about personal choice. It isn’t. It is a deeply political question concerning the right to live for an oppressed group of people.”