"Assisted suicide: a chilling prospect for disabled people"

This article is republished from the disability rights  Not Dead Yet blog.

Tanni Grey-Thompson

Tanni Grey-Thompson is well-known in the UK and to those who follow the paralympics. Her personal website is here.

On Monday, September 23, The Times published an essay by Grey-Thompson titled "Assisted suicide: a chilling prospect for disabled people."  Below is a slightly different version of the essay, shared here with the author's permission.

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.

My thanks to Tanni Grey-Thompson for permitting us to share this and to Liz Carr for helping to connect us.

Some of her biography is excerpted from the wikipedia entry on her below, for the benefit of readers outside of the UK who don't follow athletic competitions:
Dame Carys Davina "Tanni" Grey-Thompson, Baroness Grey-ThompsonDBE (born 26 July 1969) is a Welsh former wheelchair racer and is aparliamentarian and television presenter. She was born in Cardiff, Wales.
Grey-Thompson was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair. She is considered to be one of the most successful disabled athletes in the UK. She graduated from Loughborough University in 1991 with a BA (Hons) degree in Politics and Social Administration.
In preparation for her retirement from the track, she expanded her television presenting career on BBC Wales and S4C, as well as BBC One.
Grey-Thompson is a non-executive director for UK Athletics (2007), sits on the board of the London Marathon (2007) and the board of Transport for London (2008). She is Chair of the Women's Sports and Fitness Foundation Commission on the Future of Women's Sport.
Grey-Thompson is patron of numerous charities including Sportsleaders UK and is a trustee of V, the charity that helps young people become volunteers. She is Vice-Chairman of the Laureus World Sport Academy and a trustee of the Sport for Good Foundation
On 23 March 2010, Grey-Thompson was created a Life Peer on the recommendation of the House of Lords Appointments Commission (HOLAC). Despite previously suggesting a desire for a title with a Welsh connection, her title was conferred as Baroness Grey-Thompson, of Eaglescliffe in the County of Durham on 23 March 2010. Grey-Thompson was introduced in the House of Lords on 29 March,swearing the oath of allegiance in both English and Welsh and sits as a crossbencher.