Parliament is gearing up for another set piece debate on euthanasia
this month, with the second reading of Lord Joffe’s bill that
proposes to make it legal for a terminally ill person to be
assisted to commit suicide. More worryingly, its measures go beyond
the accepted definition of terminal illness to include “serious and
progressive physical illnesses”.
Ironically, for an issue that supporters of the bill argue is
clear-cut, safeguards will be required to ensure that those who
would be most vulnerable to the proposed reforms do not become the
unwilling victims of the malign motivations of others. A medical
panel will sit in judgement over an applicant’s wish to die to
ensure an “informed choice” to die rather than a state-sanctioned
slaughter of the innocent.
But already the shortcomings are becoming apparent. A recent survey
published last month revealed that more than two-thirds of doctors
opposed a change in the law and would not carry out requests for
assisted suicide. The very people on whom the bill would impose a
duty seem implacably opposed to its terms.
And there are other, deeper-lying concerns that mean the bill is
misguided and wrong and must be opposed. Disabled people’s lives
are seen by some as less “worthwhile” – burdensome and even
desperate. Unless we are strong individuals, it is all too easy to
buy into this negativity. If assisted death were a legally and
socially acceptable option, many might succumb and ask to be “put
out of their misery”.
Despite its claims, the bill does not offer safeguards against
people who believe this common stereotype of the lives of disabled
people. It was clearly this belief that allowed a British couple –
one with epilepsy and the other with an arthritic spinal condition
– to be helped to die in a Zurich clinic. Could any safeguards
respond to the hidden pressures and unspoken prompts that might
drive many disabled people to act in the supposed interests of
others, such as their relatives or hard-pressed state services? In
widening the definition of terminal illness to include progressive
physical illnesses, the bill has constructed a slippery slope that
could see many disabled people being legally allowed to die.
No country has been able to frame a law that permits assisted
suicide while ensuring that disabled people are protected from
coercion, pressure and involuntary euthanasia. This bill also fails
and should be rejected.
Jane Campbell is a commissioner for the Disability Rights