By Tanni Grey-Thompson
Stephen Hawking has expressed the view, in the course of a BBC interview, that people "who have a terminal illness and are in great pain should have the right to choose to end their own life". They do, of course, have that right now: ending your own life isn't a criminal offence. What Professor Hawking means, presumably, is that the law should be changed to legalise what is being euphemistically called 'assisted dying' - or, to put it another way, that doctors should be licensed to supply lethal drugs to terminally ill people to help them commit suicide.
There is, in fact, a Private Member's bill, in the name of Lord Falconer, before the House of Lords at this moment proposing just that. Professor Hawking believes that "there must be safeguards that the person concerned genuinely wants to end their life and they are not being pressurised into it". This is a fair enough caution to sound. What is remarkable, however, is that Lord Falconer's 'assisted dying' bill does not contain any specific safeguards to ensure that these and other conditions are met.
Professor Hawking states that "human beings should not be allowed to suffer any more than animals". This is a well-worn argument of the euthanasia lobby - that we put down suffering animals out of kindness, so why don't we do the same for humans? But what those who use this argument seem to overlook is that people don't always take their pets to be put down out of compassion: they sometimes do so because they are a nuisance or because they are proving expensive to treat or to feed. Is that the sort of society we want to see?
Those of us with disabilities are all too familiar with the view that many in society take of us - that they wouldn't want to live with our limitations and that our lives are less worth living than the lives of others. I myself have encountered such attitudes: I have been told that 'people like me' do 'a good job', I have had it put to me by a medic that I should not have children and I have even been patted on the head by a colleague. The Paralympics, in which I have had the opportunity to participate, is sadly an all too rare occasion in which people with disabilities are valued.
Legalising 'assisted dying' for terminally ill people illness reinforces prejudices about people with disabilities. Terminal illness and physical disability aren't, of course, the same thing - many people with disabilities aren't terminally ill. But terminal illness can often bring with it disability of one kind or another and it's not a big step in popular perceptions to see the two as in some way linked.
That's why the majority of people with disabilities, including me, are afraid of a law that would offer a lesser standard of protection to seriously ill people than to others. Anyone who is inclined to discount such fears should read the report of Lord Falconer's self-styled 'commission on assisted dying': it is on the recommendations of this unofficial and self-appointed group that his Private Member's bill rests. Their report recommends that physician-assisted suicide should not be offered to people with disabilities who are not terminally ill "at this point in time". It is those italicised words that send a chill down the spine of many people with physical disabilities. Lord Falconer's 'assisted dying' bill may be well-intended. But it risks becoming a law to cater for the strong rather than to protect the weak.