I’ve always had strong opinions on the assisted suicide debate (who doesn’t really?) and unlike many other members of the disabled community, I am in favour of it. There are countless articles from disabled rights activists that argue against making assisted suicide legal in the UK for fear of how this may change how we treat the disabled and the dying. They ask ‘by making assisted suicide legal are we encouraging those who are most vulnerable to end their lives so they don’t feel like a burden on others?’ or they pose the slippery slope argument ‘could the law be used by all disabled people even if they aren’t dying?’ To answer both these questions quickly, no this is not what a law allowing assisted suicide should do.
In September last year, an Assisted Dying Bill was debated in Parliament and being a law and human rights nerd, I watched the entire debate and read the entire Bill. I listened to MPs make many points but found myself thinking that none of them really seemed to understand what the obvious purpose (to me at least) of the Bill was. The Bill was supposed to allow those with 6 months or less to live as a result of a terminal illness to have access to a medically assisted suicide if they were found competent by more than one doctor. (Please know this is an extremely short summary of the Bill so if you’d like to read more visit Parliament.uk.) It is this group of people alone that would have had the option of an assisted suicide under this Bill because of the immense suffering they have to deal with as part of their illness.
I watched the BBC programme “How to Die: Simon’s Choice” and found some similarities between Simon Binner’s life and mine but there were also a lot of differences. The biggest difference was that he was going to get worse and I am going to stay the same. Simon Binner was going to lose his ability to communicate (he almost had by the end of the programme) and would eventually lose control of his muscles that allow him to breathe and swallow. I have only experienced a handful of the experiences Simon Binner and other terminally ill people will have had so I do not know exactly what they feel but I have a better understanding than those who thankfully have never had disability or a terminal illness in their lives. When I watched Simon Binner slowly lose his ability to communicate and his family’s inability to understand he didn’t want to live long enough to lose everything that made him who he was, I empathised with him in a way his family couldn’t. I thought about if my condition worsened to the point where I couldn’t communicate with my family or friends or do the things I loved anymore and I was going to die within 6 months, that I would want to have the choice of an assisted suicide. It’s because I use my disability to try and understand the suffering the terminally ill that I don’t understand why so many disabled people are against assisted suicide. Many argue it is because they would be tempted to use it themselves but I don’t think we should have that option.
I do not have a terminal illness and while when I was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (a form of Muscular Dystrophy) the doctors said I likely wouldn’t live past the age of four, I have never been told I have less than 6 months to live so the Bill would never have applied to me. So why then do the disabled keep getting put into the group of people assisted suicide could cover? Is it because we are inherently vulnerable and sometimes our daily lives look similar to those who are dying because we both need help getting dressed every morning? Or is it because some able bodied people think it must be incredibly hard living with a severe disability so they could maybe understand if we wanted the option of an assisted suicide? I’ll be honest with you. Being severely disabled can be really hard and can take its emotional toll on you as it has with me so many times, but I’ve never thought I should be allowed to have an assisted suicide. My life can be hard but it can also be pretty great. If I had chosen to have an assisted suicide at the hardest point in my life I would never have gone to law school or met Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin in New York or found my passion for human rights. The life of a disabled person is so different from the life of the terminally ill but the small similarities should allow us to be empathetic and allow those who are suffering and dying to have the option of an assisted suicide.
This was originally on The Huffington Post UK on February 18, 2016. http://m.huffpost.com/uk/entry/9250816