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British peer argues: People with disabilities need help living, not dying

assisted suicide, euthanasia, legalize assisted suicide, disabilities

As an assisted suicide bill progresses through the House of Lords in the United Kingdom, one peer is speaking out about the need to help people with disabilities to live — not the need to help them die.

Jane Campbell, the Baroness Campbell of Surbiton, was made a life peer in 2007 and has spent much of her life campaigning for disability rights. As an infant, Campbell was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a genetic disease that affects the nervous system and muscle movement. Doctors originally predicted she would die before the age of two; Campbell survived, but her younger sister died from SMA instead. Originally, Campbell was sent to a segregated school for people with disabilities where, by the age of 16, she could barely read or write. Eventually, she was able to change schools, and obtain a Master of Arts degree.

Today, Campbell is married and requires help with virtually all of her basic needs. She uses an electronic wheelchair to get around, uses a computer with one finger, and relies on a ventilator to breathe at night. In an op-ed for The Guardian, Campbell warned that people like her who have disabilities or life-limiting illnesses will be threatened if assisted suicide is legalized.

“I’ve been close to death many times because my condition is getting progressively life-limiting,” she said. “I understand and sympathise with those desperate to see a change in the law of assisted dying. For people with progressive conditions (those where symptoms or functions get worse over time) and disabilities, healthcare and social support can be a lottery. Nobody wants to be left in pain and without dignity, and nor should they be.”

What makes the situation worse is that, according to Campbell, the United Kingdom has “the ability, technology and medical expertise” to help people with serious illnesses, as well as high-quality palliative care — but it isn’t readily available to most people. Meanwhile, MPs are not prioritizing the funding of these services.

“All these services are already creaking under the strain of cuts and years of under-resourcing,” she said, asking, “Is it a wonder that so many people feel a burden on their family and loved ones?”

READSurvey: 70% of palliative care doctors in UK oppose assisted suicide

Friday, the assisted suicide bill passed to the committee stage, though the Telegraph reported that it is not expected to ultimately pass, due to time constraints and a lack of support from Prime Minister Boris Johnson. It is the third attempt to legalize assisted suicide in the United Kingdom. If it doesn’t pass, it surely will not be the last — which is what concerns Campbell.

“Under this bill, people with progressive conditions and disabilities will make decisions without other options open to them,” she said. “Some will have access to all the support they need and choose death freely, but for many others, assisted dying may feel like it is the only option. For me, this is not assisted dying but assisted suicide.”

Campbell argued that the bill will be a slippery slope that benefits a small number of people while harming many more. “Once we begin to normalise individuals with progressive conditions and disabilities choosing death, rather than building support systems which enhance dignity and genuine choice, we exacerbate already existing discrimination against all disabled people,” she said, noting that people with disabilities made up six out of 10 COVID-related deaths last year. She concluded:

This is not a world I want to live in. I want a world in which disabled people are valued and compassionately supported until the day they die. But I don’t see us investing in this choice currently. Today, I want this bill to fail because I want disabled people to have help to live, not to die.

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