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Why I, as someone with disabilities, support the Assisted Dying Bill

There is consternation that allowing assisted dying to be legalised would impact the disabled — but if it is limited to the terminally ill, as we expect it will be, I support it, writes RUTH HUNT

BY WRITING that I support assisted dying, I feel as if I am going against the disabled community and might find myself subject to a social media “pile-on” with all those who disagree making it clear they think I’m in the wrong.  

Coverage of a demonstration in 2015 against the Bill introduced by Rob Marris MP on assisted dying reinforced this belief. Various people with disabilities were interviewed, with some of those mentioning that on the side against assisted dying were disabled people, but on the side for assisted dying, there was not. Since then, similar comments have been made in articles.

This impression, that the disabled community speak with one voice, has made it extremely difficult for those with disabilities to speak up in favour of assisted dying. Not only will they be going against their own “community” but now with the debate so polarised and emotive many fear that if they raise their heads to speak, they may suffer the backlash from entrenched and long-established positions from well-organised pressure groups (on both sides).

The result is many of those who are disabled and who are in favour of assisted dying do not speak up and with these voices lost, we all could be getting a completely wrong impression of how many people with disabilities/long-term health conditions support assisted dying.

As it stands, the latest assisted dying private members Bill is having its second reading this autumn. It can be read in full at bills.parliament.uk/Bills/2875.

This Bill makes it clear this is only for those with a terminal illness and are reasonably expected to die within six months. This would have to be confirmed by two doctors independent of each other. One of these doctors would be the “attending” doctors.

An application for assisted dying would then be heard by one of the 20 family court judges, yet even if the application is approved the individual can revoke it at any point. This is important as the worldwide evidence has shown that many of those given the green light do not ultimately decide to end their lives in this way.

The terminally ill individual must take the final step. If they need assistance, such as setting up with a computer or using a medicine driver to be able to do that, assistance can be given by the attending doctor but the final step must be that of the individually, and even at this stage they can change their minds and revoke the application.  

Choice, independence and control have been concepts that those with disabilities have long had to fight for, so why are we trying to stop that for some who are in such a dire predicament? For me, this position against assisted dying doesn’t make sense.

So, what are the main arguments against the Bill?

One is based on the social model of disability and says that if the barriers disabled people face in society were dismantled, then people who were wanting to end their lives wouldn’t want to anymore because their lives would be more bearable.
 
This seems to mix up disabled people and those in the last stages of their life — when it isn’t the societal difficulties that are the main problem, but the pain and discomfort those who have a terminal illness face in the last few months of their life

There is concern too about the role of doctors and how this would impact their work and emotional state.
 
When the BMA carried out a survey of its approximately 29,000 members on the question of assisted dying it was clear they were split, which was why there was calls for it to adopt a neutral stance on the issue. So, in a vote on Tuesday September 14 the BMA voted for first, a neutral stance and secondly, for doctors to be able to refuse to be the attending doctor if this goes against their beliefs or conscience.

Another concern is the timing of the Bill coming while we are still dealing with the pandemic and the controversy that some disabled had do not resuscitate orders on their files arguably in a way that reduced the “worth” of somebody with disabilities.

I do think the Covid inquiry should investigate how and why this happened. But as we emerge from the pandemic, it might help medics when the law about assisted dying has been enacted and as such, clarified.

One of the biggest fears is that once assisted dying is allowed it wouldn’t be long before it would widen to include anyone with a disability and some disabled people who are made to feel like a burden would be pushed towards the end.

The current Bill if passed wouldn’t be able to be extended in terms of the groups it applies to; it would require a new Bill completely. But there is doubt as to if this would ever happen. Even groups such as Dignity in Dying who support assisted dying say that if this Bill was made law, then they wouldn’t support any wider extension of it. They say: “We believe the right law for the UK is one that allows dying people, with six months or less to live the option to control their death. We do not support a wider law.”

 On the theme of “on our side is the disabled” it has been argued that disability charities have not been campaigning or stating they are for this change in the law.  

This is not strictly true — instead there is a diverse discussion with large organisations often adopting a neutral position, aware that those they serve have views both for and against the change in law. This was researched here: mstar.link/dying.

Without a law on assisted dying those who are terminally ill often explore options such as Dignitas, but with it costing £10,000 this is only an option for those with money and the ability to travel.  Those who can’t access services overseas and can’t end their life themselves are in a desperate situation.

This Bill, which I support, would, if made law, give those people in this very select group, an option, which would increase their independence and control as they approach the end of their lives.

Ruth F. Hunt is a freelance journalist and author.

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