Below are some of the most asked questions. We will update this section with more questions and answers as the debate progresses.
Is assisted dying the same thing as assisted suicide?
It’s important to make clear that assisted dying and assisted suicide are not one and the same thing. In fact, they apply to different groups of people in very different circumstances.
Assisted dying is an end-of-life option, available only to those who are mentally competent and are medically recognised as dying (terminally ill). In the Assisted Dying Bill that has been recently tabled in the House of Lords, only those terminally ill and “reasonably expected to die within six months” would be eligible for an assisted death.
This is distinct from assisted suicide that is legal in some countries abroad and can be chosen by people who are chronically ill and/or have a disability.
In only campaigning for a change in the law on assisted dying, are you not ignoring the suffering of non-dying people who wish to die?
There is of course an important debate that needs to be had about whether the law should enable non-dying people, who consider their suffering unbearable, to end their lives. However, this debate should not be conflated or confused with providing dying people with greater choice and control over the dying process. Assisted dying, alongside end-of-life care, is about helping ensure people achieve a dignified and peaceful death when that death is inevitable and unavoidable.
Whilst we understand that some people with disabilities and/or chronic illnesses may consider dying preferable to living, as disabled people we also recognise that it can take time to adapt to life-changing events and to realise the potential that exists in life. This is not to say that we oppose or support a wider change in the law, but unlike a change in the law on assisted dying, a sufficiently convincing case has not been made for such a change.
What about the slippery slope?
A common misconception is that legalising assisted dying will, in turn, automatically lead to the legalisation of assisted suicide. This is termed the ‘slippery slope’ and some disabled people fear such a transition will occur unintentionally and without any checks and balances by expert professionals or democratic influences. It may be (see answer above) that at some point in the future society reaches a consensus on whether the law should change or not to allow assisted suicide for non-dying people. However, the existence of an assisted dying law does not make this inevitable.
A relevant case to consider how the US state of Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act which was passed into law in 1997. This is relevant because the current Assisted Dying Bill is similar to the Oregon law. Over the course of the last 15 years in Oregon, the criteria have never been extended to apply to people who are chronically ill or have a disability. Nor has there been a shift in public opinion in Oregon – there have been no calls to extend the law.
Likewise, UK public opinion quickly trails off when being asked whether a doctor should be allowed to help end the life of somebody with an incurable and painful illness from which they will not die; assisted suicide – only 45% support this as opposed to the 80% who agree with assisted dying. There is no political mandate, there is no significant public support and Oregon demonstrates what 15 years into legalising the choice of a dignified death looks like.
Does legalising assisted dying send out a message that some lives are less worth living?
No. It sends out the message that in the last days and weeks of life people, whether disabled or non-disabled, should not have to suffer against their wishes.
Doesn’t the current fudge in the law provide the best of both worlds?
At present the law turns a blind eye to people who compassionately help a loved one to die (for example by travelling abroad to die), whilst prohibiting medical assistance. This may get Parliament and the judiciary off the hook from prosecuting assisters that a majority of people have no desire to imprison. But, being content with people travelling abroad to die or to take matters into their own hands without medical assistance and advice is neither logical nor compassionate.
What are the views of disabled people on a change in the law?
Disabled people, and non-disabled people, hold a range of views on the issue. The first survey of disabled people specifically focused on assistance to die for the terminally ill found that 79% support Lord Falconer’s assisted dying bill.
Sadly this is not reflected in the viewpoint of some disabled people’s organisation which take a corporate position of opposition. DADID aims to challenge this.
We believe that the organisations representing disabled people should reflect the views of all disabled people, both those who support and oppose change. At present they only oppose change – giving no voice to those of us who support change.
A recent survey, which asked the opinions of 1,036 disabled people, found that:
- 46% believed disability rights groups should remain neutral on the issue of assisted dying
- 36% believed disability rights groups should support assisted dying
- 8% believed disability rights groups should oppose assisted dying
How rigorous are the safeguards?
Some disabled people are concerned about how rigorous the safeguards would be and whether they would continue to protect their freedom and individual value. They are right, that any and all safeguards must be upfront and strictly defined in law, for policymakers, health professionals and the public to understand and abide by.
Within the current Assisted Dying Bill, the choice of an assisted death by a terminally ill person can be made by them alone, providing they are over the age of 18 and, importantly, found to be mentally competent to do so. Additionally, two doctors must agree and sign a patient’s request.
The safeguards are strictly defined rules and when combined with the fact that the patient has to be the one who takes the life-ending medication, no one else, the entire process is in the sole control of the patient. The dying person would make a choice about how they wanted to die alongside a series of independent checks and balances that keep them, the health professionals, as well as family and friends safe and supported in what can only be a very difficult time for all involved.
These safeguards would empower those who are terminally ill with less than six months to live. They also empower everyone else in society, including disabled people. They do not allow an assisted death to be an option available to anyone but those in the last few months of life who meet all the eligibility criteria. The criteria would support a small group of dying people’s right to choice, dignity and control over an inevitable process whilst at the same time, respecting everyone individual’s life and their right to live it to the fullest they can.