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Any change on euthanasia will affect the disabled

It is a short walk from the idea that disabled people must find existence a tragedy to thinking we should help them die — not help them live, warns HELEN JONES

ASSISTED suicide and euthanasia are complicated, emotive issues with many facets and ways of thinking about them. There are various arguments which can be made for legalising them, or not, however the timing of any debate or discussion is important to note.

Spain has recently become the fourth country in Europe to allow people to end their own life in certain circumstances. The timing of this decision is concerning, we are still living in a global pandemic and disabled people are being disproportionately affected.

We have also faced higher levels of discrimination throughout the crisis, including but not limited to, inaccessible information, disabled people having resources denied such as life-sustaining ventilator supplies, and, perhaps most relevant to this discussion, the blanket use of do not attempt cardiopulmonary resuscitation orders (DNACPRs).

There has been such concern about inappropriate use of DNACPR decisions that the Care Quality Commission (CQC) has investigated the issue. It found that in a number of cases, the human rights of the disabled person were possibly being breached, for example if DNACPR decisions are made based on assumptions about disability, then this could be in breach of Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In addition to issues arising from blanket use of DNACPRs, the CQC report found that when people were involved in the decision-making process, it was not always in a meaningful way, or in discussion with a highly trained practitioner and in some cases people felt pressured to agree.

The issues around DNACPR decisions are significant in themselves, but they also offer some insight into the debate around assisted suicide and euthanasia, and help to explain concern around the timing of Spain’s decision.

Some disability campaigners have long argued that legalising assisted suicide makes it easier to end the lives of disabled people.

Society’s ideas that disabled people are worth less, have pitiful lives and must find day-to-day existence a tragedy has been amplified by the pandemic, and if one accepts those ideas, then it is a short move to thinking that helping someone die is a heroic act, an act of saving rather than killing.

Peter Singer has recently told the media that “parents of children with severe disabilities and poor prognoses should have the option of ensuring that those children do not live, that they die rapidly and humanely.”

In response, Disabled People Against Cuts activist Lucy Burke said: “If you are someone who needs support in daily living, if you are someone who may not be able to engage in wage labour, if you are someone whose life is characterised by a strong difference, then, for Peter Singer, you are better off dead. (And everyone around you is better off too).”

While Singer is one person, we see similar views being voiced by politicians time and time again.  

To counter concerns about misuse or abuse of assisted suicide, the idea that robust protocols would be put in place is often raised. This is supposed to address concerns that people will be overtly or covertly manipulated by relatives to end their life, however Covid-19 and the issues around DNACPRs have shown that, at present, robust protocols are a fairytale.

Should Britain follow Spain’s lead and reopen the debate on assisted suicide and euthanasia, then lives of disabled people across the country will be put at risk.

Focusing on ending lives is a way of distracting from systemic issues such as a benefits system which continually fails to support disabled people, or insufficient funding for independent living. Having the right support is crucial in supporting anyone to live a good life and disabled people are no different.

While a 2020 YouGov poll suggested strong support for assisted suicide and euthanasia, it does not mean this is the right time for Britain to consider such a decision. Prior to any discussion about assisted suicide and euthanasia, it is crucial that there is a long, hard look at how disabled people are seen and treated in our society.

Instead of debates around assisted suicide and euthanasia, we should be improving and investing in high-quality palliative care, funding the NHS and local councils appropriately and ensuring that all disabled people have access to support systems so that we can all live our best lives.

Further, genuine access to legal aid and a legal system that sees us as equal citizens are just some of the things that are essential in ensuring disabled people have an equal voice in any debate, whether it’s about assisted suicide, euthanasia or something else.

To begin discussions on assisted suicide or euthanasia at a time when disabled people are dying at shockingly disproportionate rates would be reckless and unethical.

Helen Jones is a campaigner with Disabled People Against Cuts.

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