Second Thoughts - Disability Rights Advocates Against Assisted Suicide

Blog > R.I.P. Tony Nicklinson

Submitted by Amy Hasbrouck

The BBC announced today that Tony Nicklinson has died one week after a court refused to allow him to have assistance to kill himself.

British disability rights campaigner Clair Lewis gives her take on Nicklinson's death here and talks in more detail about the disability rights opposition to assisted suicide in a blog entry from 2009. She writes:

"The public has an image of us as pathetic victims of charity, tragic but brave, lazy workshy scroungers, a drain on the state, burdened with a fate worse than death, fit for abortion, even subhuman. People are so terrified of becoming one of us that some of them want to book in their suicides now. You think I'm exaggerating? Someone came up to me recently when I was out in my wheelchair said 'I'd kill myself, if I was like you'. (It wasn't the first time. My response these days is 'I pity you, coward'.)

"I believe the root of public opinion is fear of suffering - and I agree that nobody wants to suffer. So why are we not looking for solutions which do not involve people having to die? The concept of liberating people from suffering by offering them fatal medications is more like an idea for a horror movie than a social policy.

"It may help the public to swallow this idea, now that as a poplulation we have quietly taken up the state's unique offer to investigate all pregnant women to identify and terminate unborn children with 'defects' any time until birth, even in cases when those infants could survive unaided. Parents have morally accepted that disabled lives are not worth living, and are voting with their feet, or rather, the live contents of their wombs. It is seen as the socially responsible thing to do, even that parents are the cause of our family's suffering if they do not take this morbid way out. I think it is utterly shameful that people feel this is their only option. Parents deserve a real choice, which includes the choice to have their disabled child welcomed and included.

"The philosopher Peter Singer goes further: he puts forward the argument that it should be ok to kill disabled infants after birth if it's for the greater good. And he's got a point. If we accept the above program, what's the difference? Other people are starting to wonder if it is acceptable to use the same ideas later in life, to effectively "liberate" people from torturous existences by ending their lives.

"Disabled adults are volunteering to die, in many cases because it's easier for everyone concerned than living. According to the US anti assisted suicide organisation Not Dead Yet say, the primary reason for people wanting to die is the feeling of being a burden. Polly Toynbee seems to agree: "Besides, the loss of independence and becoming a burden to others may be a valid part of the reason why someone feels life has become undignified and past bearing."

"Liz Crow told me,

"'I saw a film about the Dutch euthanasia system, which is held up as a carefully regulated system. A man I have never forgotten had his suicide approved by three doctors. It struck me that the one of the last things he said was "I don't want to be a burden to my wife." I felt like nobody could hear what he was saying. He wasn't saying he wanted to die, he was saying he didn't want to be a burden, and dying is not the only way to achieve that. I felt desolate because if that was the shallowness of their understanding, then where do we begin?'

"Absolutely it is natural that this makes people feel awful - but I want independence and dignity in life, not to be given drugs to kill myself! Similarly, I feel angry that families do not automatically get the support that would prevent anyone becoming a burden. We certainly have the capacity to do this, if government chose to release the funding.

"Polly Toynbee herself, quoting the National Council for Palliative Care admits that 'the least affluent get the least care.' It seems a shame that in the face of this evidence she concludes that assisted suicide clinics are the answer. But I suppose that's not entirely surprising for someone who once wrote that "the right to life is not an absolute. It is inextricably and untidily linked in almost every case with social and psychological considerations, as well as the money that might have bought more health and happiness elsewhere.

"Let's get the 'death with dignity' myth smashed once and for all. No one gets dignity in death. Being dead simply cannot give the dead person more dignity, still less a better quality of life - so suicide cannot be the answer to the question of how people's dignity and quality of life is improved.

"Whilst it is true that death would ease my suffering, it would also end my life, leave my children motherless and homeless, break my lovers' hearts and end my usefulness to society. I don't want to die, I have already faced that possibility once and the value of every day of my life is immense. The benefits of living outweigh the consequences of my death a hundredfold - what price a mother? It's not a tough decision.

"One day, I will die, like all other humans, and if I wanted to die at my own hands in this country I have already have a right to commit suicide. If I want to take advantage of that one day, I will, and in almost all situations of possible illness there are ways to do it - as long as I continue to have independent living - the healthcare, support, equipment, housing and access I need to life and the living.

"My body is still deteriorating. But my independence is going to tangibly improve next week when I'll be drinking coffee from something resembling a baby's beaker in the mornings, so I don't have to have my care staff hold the cup and straw, or burn myself. I am also awaiting equipment so I can get up without human assistance and go to the toilet when I wake, on foot or using my wheelchair, depending what suits. All by myself.

"These are just some simple examples of how the right support or equipment increases my ability to have a decent life, but I could list many more. These are the things that give me a shot at equality in life, the things which enable me to participate and have value as a human being in society.

"Baroness Jane Campbell, a disabled activist we can thank for fighting the last assisted suicide bill ferociously in Lords, stated in the Guardian recently,

"'Our underfunded and discretionary systems of health and social care, coupled with rampant discrimination, are having fatal consequences for disabled people. But, rather than tackle these issues head on - to choose life, in Irvine Welsh's now famous phrase - the warping effects of our discourse on disability have made death seem the only humane option.'

"I think our current working population ought to reject government and media fear-mongering, which lets the state off the hook, and ask the government for a better deal than death for their money, for those whose suicidal feelings are usually caused by neglect. I can't point you to accurate figures on this, as it's not in the interests of the state purse to study it. What I can tell you is, that in over a decade of experience of disability rights activism I have met hundreds of disabled people and people with serious illnesses, none of whom are privileged enough to be suffering from their illness or impairment alone.

"For all those reading who still think we need suicide clinics, I ask you this. Are you happy to support the idea, knowing that one day someone might facilitate you or others to die, at least in part, due to external factors which could be changed? If not, then this is the time to secure all our futures by fighting against these clinics and deciding to fight for inclusion, independent living and assistance to live, not assistance to die."

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