Level-headed assisted suicide debate based on real evidence, not misplaced emotion.

By Dr Kevin Fitzpatrick - Director of EPC - International and HOPE Ireland. 

Emer O'Kelly writes emotionally in the Irish Sunday Independent about Marie Fleming.

Marie was my friend and colleague in Swansea University for several years. At times we 'colluded' - the Northern Irish Two against the world - in the nicest and fun way of course.

I had already been disabled for twenty years when we met. My catastrophic change to wheelchair user came in an instant, collateral damage in a war I had no hand in. We did not know Marie was to become a wheelchair user herself, through progressive multiple sclerosis.

I joined Not Dead Yet UK, a loose coalition of disabled people, at the request of its founder Baroness Jane Campbell, friend, fellow Disability Rights Commissioner, and herself a lifelong disabled activist. I had visited the idea of suicide myself seriously, so I was unsure how I felt about euthanasia/assisted suicide. I began researching. When I uncovered for myself what exactly is going on where the act of taking another's life is legal, I was horrified.

I have since appeared in front of many highly emotionally-charged audiences, extremely hostile to my opposition to legalisation. I am not usually afforded the courtesy of time to explain my position, constantly shouted down by angry people, including supposedly impartial journalists.

What most audiences, and what Emer O'Kelly fails to understand is that opposition to legalising euthanasia/assisted suicide is not about some cruel desire to stand in Tom or Marie's way.

Disabled people reflect the views of the people around them, just as much as a studio audience, for example. So it is understandable that some disabled people think they should be allowed to die by euthanasia or to have someone else assist them to commit suicide. I can respect this and understand their fears of a painful death or of not wishing to be a burden on others. But I can still oppose such legislation for reasons of its terrible consequences.

Euthanasia/assisted suicide is an act that affects not just the individuals involved. The threats and awful consequences arrive once any third party is legally allowed to enter into the end-of-life decisions of another human being, whether spouse or close family member, doctor or carer or total stranger. Why is reaction to disabled people saying I want to die so different from when a healthy person says 'I am going to commit suicide'?
In Holland new-born babies are euthanized because of their disability or because their parents are suffering, people can ask to die by lethal injection because they are 'tired of life'. In Belgium children of any age are legally permitted euthanasia; so too are serial rapist/murderers who are fed-up living in jail.

All the recent cases of euthanasia deaths trailed so proudly in the Belgian media are people who were disabled, and not one of them was terminally ill. Now the Belgians even consider euthanising a man with bi-polar condition who wants to die because he loses so much money gambling in his 'manic' phases. In Belgium they state publicly that their euthanasia law was designed for disabled people, who have lives not worth living and should want to die.

Advocates of such laws say 'We are not like them: we just want assisted suicide.' They point to Oregon; or Washington State where in fact, 61% of those who ask for an assisted suicide say it is because they 'feel themselves to be a burden'. In Oregon the person who expressed a wish to die may take the prescribed medicine as much as two years later (so much for six months to live). No investigation is allowed, and no doctor needs to be present. If they were coerced or convinced to commit suicide, who would know? Oregon, where a terminally ill cancer patient received a letter from his health insurance company: your cancer treatment is too expensive but you qualify for the assisted suicide programme. So much for safeguards - they are as much an illusion as any patient choice.

What happens when laws are passed? Doctors can already be exhausted, stressed by pressures on hospital resources, or strife at home. They too can be misguided. Ireland had no policy of sending people home on ventilators, because there was no money for the equipment or support. Simon Fitzmaurice needed this support because of his MND, but while his wife and mother were at his Cork hospital bedside, a doctor he had never even met came and said to Simon 'It's time to make the hard decision' - to die.

We cannot ever draw up legislation that will safeguard us against such moments.

Now try thinking of any similar case where the person threatened was not disabled. And remember where the programme started, eradicating disabled people whose lives were counted as 'not worth living'.

I deeply oppose moves to open the legal door to ending the lives of disabled people. And not just for us, but because once a society changes in this way, it changes radically, for every citizen of Ireland.

The emotive language Emer O'Kelly uses is manipulative; pitiful phrases 'like distorted body' Most self-respecting disabled people do not seek pity. She points out that suicide is (rightly) decriminalised; but she forgets that the legislation does not then say suicide itself is alright. Every suicide has an impact, even an assisted suicide. All legislation has an immediate impact - it covers every citizen regardless of circumstance. The warnings from jurisdictions where such laws have been passed could not be starker. If we turn natural concern for an individual into a general blanket, and what follows is disastrous. For everyone.

Join Kevin for a free conference and the launch of HOPE Ireland in Dublin 6th June CLICK HERE for details!

Other articles by the author:

Grave dangers in O'Rorke case
Explainer? The real facts about assisted suicide in Ireland
Deep Sedation: France is in danger of buying a deadly illusion.
Kevin Fitzpatrick: Conversation with Terry Pratchett.
Canadian Supreme Court condemns disabled people to death