We need a right to live, not a right to die

Symon Hill
By Symon Hill
18 Jul 2014

A friend of mine who uses a wheelchair was recently approached by a stranger who crossed over the road to talk to her. Without knowing anything about her, he told her that he supported her right to die with dignity through assisted suicide. She told him that she was more concerned with her right to live than her right to die.

This man's clear implication was that any disabled person would want to die. The assumption that a disabled person's life is not worth living lies only slightly below the surface of the debate on the Assisted Dying Bill, presented in the House of Lords today.

In the midst of depression some years ago, I contemplated suicide several times. I am more grateful than I can say that I never acted on those thoughts and that I have them no longer. I am grateful to the friends who helped to dissuade me. Today I am wondering whether, if I had also had a physical illness, some of them would have encouraged me to kill myself.

I am not suggesting that all supporters of the Assisted Dying Bill take this attitude. However, the debate in the media is going ahead with very little reference to the realities of life for the thousands of disabled people thrown into poverty and isolation by the abolition of Disability Living Allowance, the end of the Independent Living Fund, the bedroom tax, the biased Atos assessments, the cuts to Disabled Students' Allowance and the removal of hundreds of local disability services following cuts to local authority budgets.

It is well documented that some of these cuts have already led to deaths. They will lead to more. There is something horrifically ironic about Parliament debating the right of disabled people to die (if they choose to do so) when they have recently approved measures that have led to disabled people dying when they have not chosen to do so.

Middle class columnists in both right-wing and left-wing newspapers are demanding their right to die in articles that attribute the opposition to narrow-minded religious leaders. You would never guess from these columns that most disability rights campaigners are against this bill.

The campaign group Not Dead Yet – formed by disabled people opposed to euthanasia – points out that “Opposition to assisted dying is not confined to the medical profession and religious groups. Most importantly, it includes the very people whom would be most affected by any change in legislation.”

Significantly, not one disabled people's organisation is backing assisted dying.

Today's Times lists supporters and opponents of the bill. Thankfully, they do list “disabled campaigners” amongst the bill's opponents, but they are last on the list, after “doctors”, “religious figures” and “party leaders”. Are the views of disabled people not more important than that?

The media have focused on the cases of terminally ill individuals who have wanted the right to assisted suicide. I have no wish to judge these people. I cannot even begin to imagine what they are going through. If they are certain that they wish to kill themselves, it would of course be wrong to treat their relatives as out-and-out murderers for helping them to do so. This is very different from arguing that this should be legal, let alone that mechanisms should be set up to kill such people in hospitals or similar settings with state approval.

We are not debating an abstract ethical question in a university seminar. We are discussing real ethics in a real context. I will not support assisted dying when there is a good chance that people will choose it because they cannot cope with physical or mental pain that could be alleviated by treatment or services that are denied to them by a state that slashes services for the most vulnerable while ploughing billions into weapons.

There are some on the left who oppose the government's cuts but make no mention of them when they declare their support for assisted dying. Then again, there is a hideous consistency in the views of former archbishop George Carey, who strongly backs welfare cuts and now wants those who suffer from them to be allowed to die.

The few ministers who back assisted dying include care minister Norman Lamb, who has colluded with cuts and presided over growing poverty amongst disabled people. It is also supported by Anna Soubry, a 'defence' minister whose job involves maintaining a military system that had killed thousands of innocent people in recent years and has the potential to kill millions more.

There are those who will dismiss my argument against the Assisted Dying Bill on the ground that I am religious. Thankfully, most non-religious people are not this prejudiced. My position is shared by many people who do not share my religion. For me, it is my Christian faith that leads me to support equality and human rights, but these principles are supported equally strongly by others. My faith also leads me to believe that society should share its resources and give to each according to their need.

I will never support any proposal based on the idea that one person's life is worth less than another's, or that offers death as an alternative to a decent welfare state.

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(c) Symon Hill is a Christian writer and activist. He is an associate of Ekklesia and a tutor for the Workers' Educational Association. His latest book, Digital Revolutions: Activism in the internet age, can be ordered from the publisher, New Internationalist, at http://newint.org/books/politics/digital-revolutions.

For more of Symon's work, please visit http://www.symonhill.wordpress.com.

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