Following the recent news about right-to-die-campaigners representing people with disabilities losing their battle, we speak to two people on very different sides of the debate.
When the team from Disability Horizons contacted me to get my views on the assisted dying debate, I found myself getting a little worried. Earlier this year I spent a week as the poster boy for the ‘no’ lobby on the issue, appearing on TV and radio, as well as writing several other articles on the subject. As such, I found myself the target of a huge number of very angry hate filled emails.
Then, just after I had joined Twitter, I became embroiled in a prolonged tweetwar after gallantly coming to the aide of Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson after she was targeted by a group of equally angry pr-lobby tweeters, which quickly descended into name calling and insult hurling.
That’s the scary thing about this discussion, for those of us who have deep reservations about the direction the concept of assisted dying might be taking us in, if we dare to raise those objections, then we are targeted by people who have lost the ability to have reasoned discussion that aren’t driven by fear. And let’s not deny that it is fear that drives the whole debate. Fear of what dying, illness or disability may bring.
But what is most scary for disabled people, is that for so many of the people arguing in favour of being assisted to die, becoming disabled was one of their ‘valid’ reasons for terminating life, just as much as suffering a slow and painful death. In fact, I once found myself being screamed at by a BBC radio presenter when I dared to argue that being disabled was not a reason for someone to end their life: “You wouldn’t do this to a dog,” he asserted.
It was obvious that the idea of becoming disabled terrified this screechy radio personality, so much so that it stole his ability for reasoned debate, even with someone who actually knew what it was like to be disabled and thus could have eased the worries of aforesaid radio bod. It is only by having a reasoned debate that we can even begin to find a sensible way forward with the idea of assisting a person to die.
But for disabled people, it is especially important that we tread (or wheel) carefully. I won’t use the hackneyed reference to the Nazi’s and how they tried to exterminate disabled people disguised as act of mercy (although I just did), but I will point out that we are living through a period in history where society’s attitudes towards disabled people are changing and hardening in such a way that it isn’t too big a leap to foresee a time when ending the lives of disabled people would be seen as a ‘kindness’ and, as a side effect, would save our impoverished economy some serious funds in the long term. To begin down the road of helping people to die without a sensible rational discussion of the issue, could easily be the first steps towards a world in which disabled people would no longer exist.
But even if this nightmare scenario never came to pass, the idea that some disabled people’s lives are so awful that death is the only sensible and compassionate answer says something very destructive about all of our existences. I have many friends whose impairments affect every single facet of their lives, but who live happy, enjoyable, creative and fulfilling lives. Yet on paper they are no different from the disabled people who feature in the media as having so little quality of life that they should be allowed to be assisted to die.
I myself have an ongoing battle with chronic pain, that has at times driven me to despair, yet I have no intention of seeing that battle as a reason to ask another to kill me. Surely the answer for those disabled people who claim their quality of life is so low that they want to die is not to say; “sure, go ahead,” but instead to make sure that they have the facilities and assistance to see just how wonderful life can be when you are disabled? Not only would this approach ensure that all disabled people could live independent and happy lives, but it would say to the wider community that being disabled is not some kind of terrible life sentence without parole.
If we took away the word ‘disability’ from this argument, it would be instantly obvious that when we consider those disabled people who are desperate to die, we are talking about people who are in the throws of a mental illness. They are still trapped in the darkness that arises from either acquiring a disability or living a life where impairments impact on your freedom to do as you choose to such an extent that they feel no hope for tomorrow. For anyone who is suicidal, but not disabled, we do not condone or even assist in any suicide attempts, but instead intervene. If we fail to stop them and give them the help they need, we see that as a failure. So for disabled people should this not also be the case as well? Are our lives so truly awful that death is a valid option?
But my last issue with the concept is the big one. If we do decide to go forward with the concept of assisted dying, who is going to do the deed? I find the idea of medical professionals tearing up their Hippocratic oath and being given the ability to choose to end a life, terrifying.
In my own experience, even though I am a marvel of modern medical science (I was the third person in the world to have been cured of a rare form of cancer I had as a child, plus I made it though two broken spines) with an amazing life ( have a successful career as a broadcaster, journalist, media whore, DJ and musician with a nice side line as an access consultant), and I am very happily married to the wonderful Diane, I have still met with a large number of surgeons who have questioned my quality of life.
If they can question someone who is obviously fulfilled and happy, then will they not do the same of those who are not in the fortunate place I find myself in? If they have the ability to end that ‘awful’ life then why would they not? Thus many disabled people might never get the chance to find out what they could achieve because they had their suffering eased. I want my doctors to not only want to try their best to keep me alive but to understand they have to.
Another element of this area of the debate is the furthering of science and medicine. When I was born I was in terrible pain and suffering from a stage 4 tumour that was so large it was beginning to grow outside of of tiny body. The nerves to my right leg had been crushed, as had my lungs. If the surgical team had assisted me to die at this time, then the chemotherapy drug that saved my life would never have been tested on me and they would never have know how successful it was and tried it on other equally serious childhood cancers.
If this had been the case, then over 30 years later when my nephew was diagnosed with childhood Leukaemia at the age of 5, there would never have been the knowledge that this drug would save him and he too would be dead, instead of being the thriving young man he is today. And that’s just one life that came out of my treatment, there must have been thousands more.
If we stop medicine seeing illness and disability as something to treat, then we will cease the need to develop new treatments. Remember, it was recently announced that a new pain medication is about to hit the market that will hopefully stop the ability to feel pain entirely. So, soon pain could become a thing of tomorrow and it is pain that has held up as one of the reasons for allowing assisted dying.
Having said all that, I do feel that we are at a point in history were we need to discuss the subject of dying and palliative care. I entirely understand that most people, disabled or not, find the idea of being at the end of their life and what that may entail terrifying. We all hope that we will go with dignity and in as little pain as possible, and the idea of any other death scares us all more than anything.
But this fear cannot colour our concepts of independence and freedom. We should all be fighting for a world that ensures every life is seen as valid, that assists everyone to have a life that is happy and fulfilled, and that when the end does finally come, it is comfortable and pain free.
Before I go, I should point out that I am a confirmed atheist and so my beliefs are in no way coloured by a religious belief that life is sacred. In fact, it is my knowledge that we are only here once that makes me so strongly argue that life is precious. We should all have the chance to enjoy every moment, not to end it when we feel hope is lost.
You can see my TV debate by visiting my website, Mik Scarlet.
By Mik Scarlet
A recent survey found that 77% of the British public are in favour of assisted dying. But what is your opinion? See Lucy Aliband’s argument for assisted dying and join the debate. You can comment on either of the articles in the comment section below, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, message us on Facebook or Twitter @DHorizons.