A new campaign has been launched to oppose assisted suicide proposals in the UK six years after the last attempt to change the law was overwhelmingly rejected by MPs.
Better Way will fight fresh proposals to usher in state-assisted suicide for terminally ill citizens at both Westminster and Holyrood.
The campaign highlights evidence from Canada, which legalised the practice in 2016, alongside testimonies of people with “lived experience of terminal illness” in arguing to keep the law as it stands.
It also seeks to set out a “positive, alternative vision”, encompassing “truly compassionate and beneficial policies for those implicated by a change in the law”. Its website states:
“The evidence is clear, assisted suicide poses many dangers to society. In Canada, access to palliative care and other forms of specialist support has diminished. Existing structural inequalities have been made worse. ‘Safeguards’ have proved completely ineffective and have been dispensed with quickly.
“We cannot risk these harmful outcomes in the UK, especially in a post-coronavirus world where healthcare budgets are stretched. Instead of opening the door to assisted suicide, politicians should pursue truly compassionate and beneficial policies for those implicated by a change in the law.
“We have a better vision for the UK. A vision involving better access to palliative care, a redoubling of efforts to prevent suicides, action on elder abuse and loneliness, and greater disability equality. These noble goals are only attainable so long as the door to assisted suicide remains firmly shut.
“Read our vision for:
Better Way is backed by several experts including disability activists, academics, and a world-renowned professor of bioethics.
‘We will fight tooth and nail’
Dr Miro Griffiths, a Leverhulme Research Fellow in Disability Studies at the University of Leeds and spokesman for the Better Way campaign, commented:
“I am pleased to mark the announcement of Better Way today. We will fight tooth and nail to see sinister assisted suicide proposals kept off the statute book and put a positive, alternative case to politicians. We shouldn’t have to be doing this. MPs have already carefully considered the evidence more than once and overwhelmingly rejected a change in the law. MSPs have also roundly rejected it twice before. The evidence hasn’t changed.
“’Assisted dying’ legislation places emphasis on interventions to facilitate and accelerate an individual’s death whilst ignoring systemic social injustices. It also diverts attention away from policy interventions that should provide people with support to participate in their communities, and access sufficient palliative care at the end of their life. We have arrived again at a debate about ‘dignity in death’ before we have truly established dignity in life.”
“In saying this, I am not ignoring the prevalence of pain, distress, and fear that can – sometimes – accompany health conditions, illnesses, and impairments. I am aware this exists, and I experience it personally. I am arguing that we cannot pass legislation and policy measures based on a tiny number of individuals’ anecdotal experiences. We must always consider the broader contexts associated with policy and law.
“Disabled people’s human rights violations are real. Disabled people are denied opportunities to participate in their communities. Disabled people do not receive sufficient support to have a valued, respected role in society. If the Assisted Dying Bill was not to pass these issues would still exist. If the Assisted Dying Bill was to pass, these issues would likely be compounded, as would inequalities faced by other groups.
“I urge politicians at Westminster and Holyrood not to open the door to assisted suicide. Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it leads to serious and widespread harms affecting the most marginalised in society. Let’s work together to establish a better way for the UK.”
‘Existing law must be upheld’
Kevin Yuill, an Associate Professor of American History and author of Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case Against Legalisation also supports the campaign. He commented:
“I welcome the launch of Better Way today. I am opposed to putting someone to death – or participating in their killing – as a solution to problems of life. ‘Assisted dying’ is participating in someone’s suicide. When society agrees, it taints all of us and it undermines wider efforts to prevent people ending their lives.
“The proposed legislation creates inequality; some lives are worth saving and some are not. It removes the fundamental principle that says it is just as wrong to kill an 86-year-old who does not value his life as it is to kill a young person with their whole life ahead of them. This principle operates in relation to homicide law – why wouldn’t it underlie preventing suicides?
“The understandable devastation and depression of someone who has been given a terminal prognosis should not be met with a counsel of despair. Physical pain can be alleviated with drugs and care; existential pain in anyone should not be met with hopelessness and resignation. Assisted suicide is wrong because it prescribes death for the difficulties of life.
“Existing law gives expression to the principle of the equal value of all human life, no matter the circumstances. There will always be hard cases, but the principle behind the law, the value we accord to every human life, is fundamental and must be upheld. I urge politicians to oppose the latest proposals and work to uphold and strengthen existing, compassionate policies.”
The campaign highlights testimonies from individuals with “lived experience of terminal illness” who are opposed to a change in the law, arguing that their voices are often unheard.
‘There is dignity in a natural death’
Alison shared her experience of managing a charity providing care at home:
“I have worked as the manager of a charity that provided care at home and as a district nurse. I am trained in palliative care and have significant experience caring for those with terminal illness and chronic conditions. Based on my experience, I fear that many elderly people will feel compelled to opt for an ‘assisted death’ because they feel that they are a burden on their families or the NHS.
“Over the years, I have encountered rare examples of family members or neighbours requesting that I or nursing colleagues increase medication to bring about death more quickly. The purpose of this has been, sadly, so that the relative might gain money, property, or some other inheritance more quickly. This is shocking, I know, but it happens, and I fear that such incidents would be more prevalent under an assisted dying law.
“I have had patients ask me to kill them as their suffering is so great. But in every case, once they have received the correct treatment – counselling, pain relief or just emotional support – they have changed their minds and later thanked me for not assisting their suicide. They have gone on to enjoy extra life and seasons, important events like weddings or the birth of a grandchild and then been able to say a proper goodbye to family and friends.
“There can always be dignity in natural death if it is handled well and with enough resources. A good death does look dignified, even in the most difficult of circumstances.”
‘Patients would be pressured’
Another testimony from a district nurse, Judith, states:
“Having worked in the past as a district nurse I have had the privilege of being with people at the end of their lives. I have supported people during their last months and final moments. I am very grateful that assisted suicide is not an option.
“We cared for people and demonstrated that their lives mattered to the very end – that we were not going to speed their end, and there was no pressure for them to give up. We just wanted people to have comfort and dignity. Of course, this does involve suffering, but good palliative care can relieve distressing symptoms and pain.
“If assisted suicide was legal it would bring so much pressure on people when they are ill, tired, and vulnerable. Instead, we should care for everyone in society, at every stage of life.”
‘As a doctor, I can’t support it’
Christopher, a recently retired doctor who spent the last 15 years of his career in palliative care, states:
“I supported people with terminal illness, mainly helping them stay at home by relieving symptoms and supporting them and their families so they did not need to be admitted to hospital.
“It was an extremely rewarding and satisfying experience. I believe if skilled, compassionate palliative care is available to all, very few will seek to end their own lives, or ask a healthcare professional or family member to enable this to happen. I believe that it is especially important that depression is addressed.
“I am grateful that at the moment euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal. I am horrified by reports from nations where they are legal, knowing that many have had their lives ended because they are overwhelmed by the sense that they are a burden on others. For the benefit of the vulnerable, the disabled and those who feel guilty about being a ‘burden’, I sincerely hope the law will no change.”
‘It would rob us of experiences’
Andrew, who lost his wife to cancer, believes that assisted suicide would have robbed them of a “precious legacy”:
“My wife of 27 years died from very nasty form of lymphoma. If assisted suicide had been available, and she had opted for this solution, we would have missed out on so many wonderful memories, and I would not have realised what an amazing woman I had married.
“We both grew so much closer during her illness. Family and friends came to visit regularly, and they too noticed the changes that took place in us.
“Now, 16 years on from her death, I look back at this time we had together and realise what a treasure it was. I’m so glad I found out about the lovely qualities my wife had, many of which weren’t on display prior to her cancer. Assisted suicide would have stolen this precious legacy from me.
A view from Canada
Better Way commissioned a series of essays on the Canadian experience. One essay focuses on the push for change in the Great White North, through parliament, the courts and in the medical profession. Another essay, entitled ‘Canada’s Slippery Slope’, considers incremental extension of the law over the last five years. A third essay considers the extension of Medical Aid in Dying (MAiD) legislation to cover mental health conditions.
Notes for Editors:
The Better Way campaign is supported by:
Phil Friend, Chair of Research Institute for Disabled Consumers (RIDC), Vice Chair of the Activity Alliance, a Churchill Fellow and a former chair of Disability Rights UK and RADAR.
Dr Miro Griffiths, Leverhulme Research Fellow in Disability Studies at the University of Leeds, and policy adviser to regional, national, and supranational bodies.
Dr Kevin Yuill, a lecturer in History at the University of Sunderland and author of Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case Against Legalisation.
Dr Ashley Frawley, senior lecturer in sociology and social policy at Swansea University in Wales.
David Albert Jones MA (Cantab), MA, MSt, DPhil (Oxon), Professor of Bioethics at St Mary’s University, a Research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford, and Director of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre.
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