A high-profile opponent of assisted suicide says a radio documentary in which she visited the five countries that allow state-sanctioned killing left her convinced that other governments will soon legalise the practice.
The disabled actor, comedian and activist Liz Carr said she believed it was “almost inevitable” that other countries would follow the examples of Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and the US states of Oregon and Washington, and legalise assisted suicide or euthanasia.
Carr visited all five countries for When Assisted Death is Legal, a two-part documentary for BBC World Service that aired for the first time this week.
Carr took the trip because she wanted to understand why these countries had adopted assisted dying laws.
The conclusion she reached was that they were all countries, or states, that were pushing the boundaries on individual rights, “lashing out” against being told what to do, whether by government or organised religion.
“I think what I learned,” she says, “is that it is almost inevitable that countries are going to see this as a way ahead and as a good thing, and that is what scared me the most.”
The attitude of many of the people she met also alarmed her. “Talking to people who are very pro [assisted suicide], it seems like the most rational and human thing to do. That was quite shocking to me.”
Only last September, Liberal Democrats at their annual conference voted heavily in favour of calling on ministers to bring in assisted dying laws, while the Labour peer Lord Falconer is expected this year to introduce another bill in the Lords in an attempt to legalise assisted suicide.
Carr told Disability News Service (DNS) that she was shocked by several incidents she encountered on her journey.
At a cocktail party, during a conference organised by the Dutch pro-assisted death organisation NVVE, she was talking to a female guest when the woman suddenly asked her: “Are you suffering intolerably?”
“People totally assumed I was interested [in assisted suicide] from the point of view of wanting it, and were surprised at my objections,” says Carr. “It was the most surreal experience.”
As a disabled, English woman in Switzerland, she felt everyone thought she was there to visit the notorious Dignitas suicide clinic. “I felt really conspicuous,” she says. In the documentary, she describes how “as someone opposed to assisted suicide and as a disabled person it was weird being somewhere where it was so normalised”.
Carr was an opponent of legalising assisted suicide before the trip, and saw nothing during her investigation to change her mind. Much of what she witnessed and heard appears to have only strengthened her views.
In Washington State, which introduced its own “death with dignity” laws in 2008, she heard of the woman with terminal cancer who was told by her health insurance provider that it would not pay for the chemotherapy drugs she needed, but would fund the full cost of an assisted death.
Carr says she fears that the drift towards a more privatised health system in the UK could see similar “choices” being offered here, if assisted suicide is legalised.
And she says the evidence she gathered suggests – although it is impossible to prove – that many disabled people across those five countries are being persuaded to die by their financial circumstances and the lack of social care and support available to them.
She says in the documentary: “At a time when we are experiencing cuts in health and social care, how can we be sure that assisted suicide does not become the easy option?”
And she concludes that what is alarming about assisted death legislation is how easily such laws can be widened once they have been introduced.
“Campaigners often talk about the slippery slope,” she says. “Once a law is in, it is unlikely ever to go away, and when it is extended it is without all the debate and discussion you have when it first goes through.”
She accepts that there are cases “where people are in great pain and suffer amazingly and are at the end of their lives”, but she told DNS that her travels had not persuaded her that legalisation could be introduced safely.
“If I believed that we were valued and I believed that people had the proper end-of-life care, whoever they were, and support and medical attention, then absolutely, why not?” she says. “It is just that I don’t [believe all of that], and nothing will change that.”
21 February 2013