Thursday, 1 December 2011

the right to die - in the name of disability?


A man who was paralyzed from the neck down following a stroke is to go to court to request that doctors be allowed to help him to die. 

Tony Micklinson is paralyzed from the neck down and is only able to communicate by blinking.  But mentally he is still entirely competent.  He has expressed the wish to be allowed to end his own life with the help of doctors on the basis that his death may be a long drawn out affair which will be hard on his family. 

I think this raises some serious questions.  In the past there have been numerous attempts from individuals suffering from terminal illnesses requesting permission to be assisted to die, and for those who assist them be granted immunity from prosecution.  So far, all these requests have been unsuccessful. 

But Tony Micklinson is not terminally ill.  Tony Micklinson is severely disabled, and while it is perfectly understandable that he might feel he does not wish to live that way, his condition is not degenerative and is not one which will ultimately kill him. 

He has made the point that if he were able, then he would have the right to commit suicide.  However this isn’t actually the case.  It’s not having the right, it’s having the ability.  But even if Tony Micklinson were able-bodied, were it to be known that he was suicidal, it is likely he would be sectioned to prevent him from killing himself.  Or if he attempted and failed he would be admitted to hospital and given psychiatric help in order that he not attempt suicide again. 

Suicide is still actually illegal in the UK, so it is inaccurate to suggest that the able-bodied have the right to end their own lives while the terminally ill/severely disabled do not.  The able-bodied have the ability not the right – there is a difference. 

But there is another aspect of this case which leaves me somewhat uncomfortable. 

When someone commits suicide due to depression, the reaction expressed is always one of overwhelming sadness and regret that the person could not seek help in order to overcome their state of mind in order to have not felt the need to commit suicide.  This is of course right – after all it is desperately sad that anyone should ever feel that there is no way out for them but suicide. 

But when someone with a disability commits suicide due to their disability the reaction is often totally different, almost to the point where it is seen as acceptable to want to end your life due to disability. 

When Daniel James, a 23 year old rugby player, went to Dignitas in Switzerland to commit suicide in 2008 the reactions were varied.  But overwhelmingly many people seemed to believe that for him, ending his life rather than learning to come to terms with his disability was the right thing to do.  That disability is seen as this thing to fear and that wanting to kill yourself rather than face it is perfectly understandable and should not be judged. 

Yet we don’t have this view towards depression.  I don’t believe that anyone would sanction someone suffering from depression ending their own life – quite the opposite – people would want that person to seek help and support, and would tell them that nothing could be that bad. 

And yet there are people out there who are happy to fight for the right of someone with a disability to be able to end their life.  I think it is very sad that we still have such a two-tear way of thinking in terms of when it is ok to commit suicide and when it isn’t. 

We should no more express understanding for the disabled person’s wish to end their life than we would do of someone who is depressed.  One life does not equal more worthy of ending simply because that person has a disability.

And I am of course not referring to terminal illness in this way of thinking, since terminal illness is an entirely different thing, after all, if someone is going to die then it is perfectly understandable that they may wish to hasten this process while they are still able to do so.

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