The great cause as far as disabled people are concerned remains equality – not assisted suicide

by Kevin Meagher

The suffering and death of Tony Nicklinson has been painful enough to watch as an outsider, let alone to experience what it must be like as a family member or friend of this once active and independent man.

His fight to reform the law to allow ‘assisted suicide’ – rejected in the high court last week – was heartfelt and passionate. It clearly gave focus to his bleak and tortured existence after suffering from “locked-in syndrome” for eight years following a massive stroke in his early 50s.

But his passion and sincerity were misplaced. The law should not be liberalised and, if anything, should be strengthened to prevent the slide towards legislation that creates circumstances in which the life of a sick or disabled person can be deliberately ended.

This sentiment will rankle with some who, moved by Nicklinson’s terrible plight, would have granted him the scope to end a life he plainly no longer wanted to live.

“I wouldn’t want to live if that happened to me” is a response most of us will have uttered at some point, usually as a response to the sight of someone with profound physical or mental disabilities.

The impulse is perhaps strongest among those who live successful, rewarding lives. Baby-boomers like Nicklinson personify a generation that takes personal autonomy and choice for granted, unhindered by others’ boundaries.

In this view, the thought of being humbled by disability or disease destroys the very thing that animates a well-spent life – individual freedom.

But let’s be clear what is at stake. Whether we call it euthanasia or assisted suicide we are talking about killing human beings. We are forced to cross a Rubicon. Unlike war, where death is a by-product of other strategic goals, in this instance death is the point.

The subsequent questions are grisly but inevitable. How many people should be allowed to die at the hand of another? Is it purely a matter of consumer choice (‘I don’t want to go on living’) or do we objectify criteria in some way? And, ultimately, how will we permit the deadly act to be carried out?

The implications for our collective public morality are profound and far-reaching. There is no framing of the law, no amount of safeguarding, no well-meant assurances that will or can prevent every abuse once we go down this road. The liberal argument against the death penalty has always been that a single innocent life taken is a price that is never worth paying.

So, too, it is with disabled people, the elderly and the mentally incapacitated. They are not a “burden” as the ethicist Mary Warnock disgracefully argued a few years ago. Their lives, regardless of the lingering prejudices of able-bodied onlookers, remain just as valuable and deserve the same protection.

We must therefore override the impulse to make allowances, even in extreme cases like Nicklinson’s or any of the other equally heart-rending examples that periodically appear before the law courts and the court of public opinion.

After two weeks of “elite athletes” displaying their super-human physical prowess during the Olympics, we now have the Paralympics upon us. The poor relation as far as corporate sponsorship goes, this next fortnight is a celebration of human achievement that actually tells us something much more profound.

The Paralympics is a passionate cry for equality. A proud display of the perseverance of the spirit to transcend physical setbacks. So much so that a man who lost both legs in childhood like Oscar Pistorius can now appear as an equal on the starting blocks of the Olympic 400 metres final.

For the left, the correct response is not to waste time and energy working out how to permit the killing of sick and disabled people but to focus on tackling stigma and discrimination against them while doing everything to bolster their quality of life. This was the approach – and the magnificent legacy – of Labour MP and disability champion Alf Morris who died last week.

His obituaries reminded us what a landmark achievement his Chronically Sick & Disabled Persons Act was, recognising that each of us, disabled and able-bodied, has an equal, inviolate humanity that demands respect and fair treatment.

Far better, then, to fight on this ground than to give in to the nihilism of assisted suicide.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

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19 Responses to “The great cause as far as disabled people are concerned remains equality – not assisted suicide”

  1. james says:

    what a load of tosh – he was of sound mind and in the end DID create his own horrible version of assisted dying – it’s amazing how Labour are going back to `we know what’s good for you`

  2. Mike Homfray says:


    There are many disabled people like Tony Nicklinson who want to make this choice. That does nothing to affect equality for disabled people who choose not to

    I don’t think you , the state, or anyone else has the right to tell people how they ought to feel or what attitude they should have towards their situation. By making them live when they clearly do not wish to does nothing to add to their humanity – it is very reminiscent of the evil doctrine of ‘the nobility of suffering’ promoted by some religions. I think that is entire nonsense. Suffering is not noble. It is not something which makes people somehow ‘better’. You should not be able to ‘protect’ someone’s life when they are making it clear they do not require protection. Patronising and paternalistic. Again, reminiscent of the ‘we know best for you’ attitude of the religionists and their gods. as there is no god other than the one made up by religionists, I see no reason why it should have any influence on my life. The whole attitude to life which has emerged from Christianity needs to be reviewed, as it simply isn’t the one most people hold any more. If people wish to believe life is ‘sacred’, fine – but its certainly not compulsory!

    If people wish to continue to live – fine. But if they feel their life is no longer worthwhile and wish to end their life, then there should be the means to enable them to do so. Similarly, in cases of terminal illness, the wishes of that individual must override those who think they know better – in particular the voices of the religionists, who should be permanently confined to the private sector and have absolutely no influence on public policy.

  3. Dexter P says:

    I was going to write a response, but realised that Mike Homfray, in his comment, has said all I wanted to say, and more eloquently.

  4. Julia says:

    It is a relief to see someone calmly putting the opposite case. I agree that the danger is that if we legislate to ‘allow’ assisted suicide we will be setting a very dangerous precedent, and opening the way for people who could go on living to start feeling they should die … and with a few little hints, about how easy it all is now, from those around them – whether well intentioned, or with an eye to giving up the responsibility and collecting the proceeds, either way, this is worrying.

    I think has already been made clear that relatives who assist with suicide will not automatically, be prosecuted, and I think we need to remember this. Instead, of continually nagging for it to be made easier and easier for people with severe disabilities to be killed, yes, we should be putting our efforts into arguing for resources for making life better for people like Tony Nicholson. Anyone who has had much in the way of dealings with the NHS or Social Services in this country knows how lack of funding for adequate facilities and insufficient consultation about needs, combined, sometimes, with rigid attitudes, helps to makes life miserable.

    Finally, I am not quite sure what a ‘religionist’ is, but, in my case, this is NOTHING to do with religion. I am a life-long atheist, believing you get one life – that’s it!

  5. Kevin says:

    ‘If people wish to continue to live – fine. But if they feel their life is no longer worthwhile and wish to end their life, then there should be the means to enable them to do so.’

    I take it Mike that you’re not a volunteer with the Samaritans in your spare time? You seem more interested in silly religion-bashing and posturing rather than critiquing the piece so I’ll leave it there; save to say that the Christian notion of the common good, which you so detest, is just a mirror image of the socialist collectivism I still hold to.

    James – I think you’ll find most laws are framed on the basis that ‘we know what’s good for you’. Wouldn’t you agree, or do you want us to go about murdering each other in the name of personal freedom?

  6. Paul Stephenson says:

    “His obituaries reminded us what a landmark achievement his Chronically Sick & Disabled Persons Act was, recognising that each of us, disabled and able-bodied, has an equal, inviolate humanity that demands respect and fair treatment.”

    Surely if respect and fair treatment is demanded then this should apply to those individuals who choose to end their lives in a dignified way, if not are we doing just the opposite?

    Of course we should champion the rights of chronically sick and disabled people by giving the best quality of life possible. However is it not also fair to uphold the wishes of those who’s lives are not as fulfilled and can’t be improved whatever those wishes may be?

  7. Kevin says:

    Paul – if you were there, would you try to dissuade someone from jumping off a building? Or would you respect their right to do so? After all, it’s their choice to end it all, so should there wish be respected?

    You’ll probably say there’s a world of difference between a potentially fit and physically healthy person contemplating suicide and someone with an incurable, degenerative illness, but where is that line drawn?

    Is it when someone with motor neurone disease can no longer move? On when someone with Alzheimer’s cannot fasten their shoelaces? Who makes that assessment? What are the criteria used? A previously stated desire not to carry on? Do we assume that we fickle, mercurial human beings never change our minds?
    How do we assess the consent – and state of mind – of the person the state is allowing to die?

    Do we leave it to family and carers or is the termination carried out by a clinician? If so, do we expect all doctors and nurses to waive moral objections and assist in killing a patient? What about the Hippocratic Oath? Etc, etc.

    This is a messy, ugly, legal and moral swamp. The existing law may not be perfect for those in extreme circumstances like Mr Nicklinson, but, to paraphrase Churchill on democracy, it’s the worst legal option – apart from all the others.

  8. Victoria says:

    Kevin – as a labour party member, and a vehement believer in the value of life, I also passionately believe in the importance of a good death.

    Your right that this is not just about the individual it is also about society. What does it say about our society when we ignore the suffering of others and turn a blind eye to Britons travelling abroad to die?

    You dismiss the case for upfront safeguards out of hand. But have any of your dire predictions occurred in those countries in Europe or States in US which have legalised and regulated some form of assisted dying?

    Finally, I do not believe that allowing dying people to control the time and manner their death is mutually exclusive of campaigning for equality rights for disabled people. It should be noted that Alf Morris, for example, supported Lord Falconer’s amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill in 2009 which would have introduced up front safeguards to those wanting to travel abroad to have an assisted death.

  9. Kevin says:

    Victoria – would be interested in hearing your answers to the questions posed in my previous post…

    Re your point about travelling abroad to die. It seems the numbers who have done so is around 100:

    This hardly seems to quantify a public appetite for assisted death, but if the law is changed many more vulnerable people would be swept up into the net, convinced their life ‘is not worth living’ by bean-counting doctors and money-grubbing relatives.

  10. Victoria says:

    Kevin – On criteria and safeguards I would point you in the direction of the APPG on Choice at the End of Life’s consultation on a draft assisted dying bill.

    In terms of numbers I don’t think it is so easy to dismiss the suffering of those Briton’s (well over 100) who felt they had no other option to travel abroad to die in a foreign country. I think it is also important to take into account that travelling abroad to die is just the most visible aspect of the problem. Alongside those who are forced to suffer against their wishes, some dying people at present are illegally helped to die by doctors with no upfront safeguards. Research on which, provided by Prof Clive Seale, indicates that this equates to around 1000 people per year. Surely a law that regulates an existing practice is preferable to turning a blind eye to what’s going on.

    Finally, you can keep asserting that a change in the law will pose a threat to vulnerable people but do you have any evidence to back this up? It is perfectly acceptable to oppose something on principle alone but if is the case I would hope you would say so.

  11. Kevin says:

    Victoria – citing a front group for legalising euthanasia and then accusing me of failing to provide evidence is a bit rich.

    Neither do I ‘dismiss the suffering’ of the 100 people who have chosen to travel abroad to have someone to assist in their death.

    The point is that 100 is surely a tiny figure to prosecute an argument that there is some vital public need to legalise assisted suicide in the UK.

    In a previous post on this thread I describe this issue as a ‘messy, ugly, legal and moral swamp.’ It is. But I have to say, I find the spotless moral universe of people who think there is a perfect way of licensing the killing of elderly, sick and disabled people without many vulnerable people being swept up in this mire utterly bizarre.

    This ultra-free market, consumer-driven view that human life is commodifiable is surely inimical to progressive politics?

  12. Victoria says:

    Kevin – I think many progressives, and many people in the Labour Party, would struggle to equate respecting someone’s right to not to suffer against their wishes at the end of life as an endorsement of an “ultra-free market, consumer-driven view that human life is commodifiable”.

    Let’s agree to disagree.

  13. Mike Homfray says:

    Largely agree with what Victoria has said.

    You may equate the religious idea of the common good with socialism, Kevin, but I certainly don’t. At least you are being honest about your religious stance, but please don’t try and impose it on those of us who want none of it.

    Belgium and Holland have voluntary euthanasia and the system works very well. There are various groups, almost always religious in origin, who will try to say otherwise, but their experience gives the lie to the view that it is not possible to draft legislation.

    84% of the population believe there should be dignity in dying as an option. Change will come, particularly as we become more and more secular

  14. Kevin says:

    Victoria – you can’t or won’t answer any of the points I made, so might as well call it a day.

    Mike – you seem set on making Dave Spartist anti-religion bluster your main argument rather than engaging sensibly. Even where we disagree surely you can see the points I’m making about how any law – regardless of how it is framed – will see dreadful abuses by greedy relatives and uncaring clinicians?

  15. Paul Stephenson says:

    Kevin you seem to have an answer for everything I guess we are all wrong 😉

  16. Kevin says:

    Paul – it would seem so, yes.

  17. treborc says:

    And how long before Lord Freud and his gang and Labour start deciding for us who lives and who dies, after all it’s about saving in welfare.

    How long would it be for two doctors to make the decision for us.

    Right now I feel pretty safe seeing my doctors, knowing they could help us to save welfare, no thanks. I would have thought more should be done to stop disabled people jumping off bridges or setting fire to cars, I already feel guilty enough with Purnell and Freud and Blair’s love of the disabled.

  18. Mike Homfray says:

    No, Kevin. I think its a typically ‘slippery slope’ argument which hasn’t and isn’t backed up with any evidence. Personally, I wish you would just be honest and admit that this is a moral/religious issue for you. Because there’s no point in trying to have a discussion if that is so – you have your religion, which I oppose and reject. There isn’t a basis for agreement as we have a different moral starting point.

  19. Kevin says:

    Mike – sorry, you’re the one with the religious hang-ups my friend. My argument is as stated. If my argument were primarily religious, I would say so. As you may have noticed, I’m not exactly the shy retiring type.

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