Tuesday June 8, 2010

Disabled Need Help to Live, Not Die: Handicapped UK Baroness

By Hilary White

LONDON, June 8, 2010 ( – While pro-assisted suicide campaigners continue to press for the relaxation of Britain’s law against assisted suicide, one disabled member of the House of Lords is fighting back. Jane Campbell, Baroness Campbell of Surbiton, has urged MPs to sign on to a charter that affirms the value of the lives of disabled people and says they should receive the same protections under the law as all other citizens.

Writing in the Guardian newspaper, Campbell said, “In recent years, calls for a change to the law prohibiting assisted suicide have grown louder and more frequent. They capitalise on fear. Fear of pain, fear of loss of dignity, fear of being a burden. And, yes, fear of witnessing those fears being felt by those we know and love. The solution offered to the fear of disability and illness is final: suicide.

“We face a bleak situation if calls for assisted suicide to be lawful are renewed whilst vital services are being withdrawn or denied.”

The charter is the work of the disability rights group Not Dead Yet UK, who launched a campaign last week to counter the efforts of the euthanasia and assisted suicide lobby. The campaign comes at the same time as euthanasia campaigners have vowed to continue to pressure for legalized assisted suicide in the new government.

“We cannot allow others to speak for us – especially those who seek to offer us the choice of a premature death: it is not a choice, it is to abandon us,” wrote Campbell.

She also warned of the slippery slope of legal “assisted dying.” Once campaigners have succeeded in legalizing assisted suicide, she said, “they will then seek to broaden the criteria.”

“Once early death becomes an ‘option’, it will gain a respectability that will erode the resolve of many people experiencing personal difficulties. Not only will it enter our heads, it will also enter the heads of our families and friends, those who provide us with health and social care support and, ultimately, those holding the purse strings.”

The charter asks MPs to assert that, like those suffering from suicidal thoughts, disabled people should be encouraged to live. It includes a pledge to support palliative care initiatives and to ensure the disabled and ill receive the health care and social services they require to “live with dignity.”

Earlier this year, the UK’s Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer issued guidance on the application of the assisted suicide law that said violators in England and Wales would not be prosecuted if they acted out of disinterested or “compassionate” motives.

The guidance was issued after a decision by the House of Lords Judicial Committee saying that public prosecutors must “clarify” current law. The decision was a victory for assisted suicide campaigner Debbie Purdie, a woman with multiple sclerosis who wants her husband to be allowed to accompany her on the trip when she goes to commit suicide at the Dignitas suicide facility in Switzerland.

Baroness Campbell, who as Britain’s leading voice against assisted suicide for the disabled, is effectively Purdie’s opposite number in the debate. Campbell was diagnosed at the age of 9 months with spinal muscular atrophy, a degenerative condition which has left her confined to a wheelchair and open to regular respiratory crises. She serves as a Commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and is a former chairman of the House of Lords Disability Committee and Commissioner of the Disability Rights Commission.

She told the Daily Telegraph last year of a terrifying incident in which she was rushed to a hospital emergency room, where doctors tried to persuade her husband to “allow her to die.” Campbell credited the intervention of her husband Roger, who had to show hospital staff photos of his wife receiving an honorary doctorate in law from Bristol University in order to demonstrate her quality of life.

She said in the interview, “What was even worse was the isolation I would have felt if I had been alone…If Roger wasn’t here, would I have been allowed to die because the doctors believed it was kinder to end my life?”

In an impassioned speech in the House of Lords, opposing an attempt by Lord Falconer to relax the law, Campbell said that legal assisted suicide “’is to abandon hope and ignore the majority of disabled and terminally ill.” The defeat of Lord Falconer’s bill was credited to that speech, but the vote was close at 194 to 141.