In a column in The Times (£) former paralympian Tanni Grey-Thompson has taken issue with Stephen Hawking's suggestion that assisted suicide should be legalised for terminally ill people. She challenges the "well-worn argument of the euthanasia lobby" that, as we put down sick animals who are suffering, we should do the same for people. Those who argue in this way, she writes, overlook the fact that, while many people who have animals put to sleep do so out of compassion, there are others who do so because they are a nuisance or because they are becoming expensive to treat. "Is that the sort of society that we want to see?", she asks.
Most people with physical disabilities fear a change in the law, writes Baroness Grey-Thompson. They fear it because they experience at first hand the view that many people in society take of disability - "that they wouldn't want to live with our our disabilities and that our lives are less worth living than those of others". Of course, the proposals which are being put forward by campaigners for legalised 'assisted dying' don't include people with disabilities: they are limited to those who are terminally ill. "But", says Tanni Grey-Thompson, "terminal illness can often bring with it disability of one sort or another and it's not a big step in popular perceptions to see the two as linked".
"Anyone who is inclined to discount such fears", she writes, "should read the report of Lord Falconer's 'commission on assisted dying'", as it is the report of this self-styled and highly-partial group that provides the basis of Lord Falconer's current Private Member's Bill before Parliament. That report, she writes, recommended that assisted suicide should not be offered "at this point in time" to people with disabilities who were not also terminally ill. "What this tells me", Baroness Grey-Thompson wrote when the report was published in 2012, "is that I am not seen as a candidate for assisted suicide right now but I am in the waiting room".
These remarks are apposite at a time when there is yet another Private Member's bill before Parliament seeking to license doctors to supply lethal drugs to terminally ill patients, a change in the law to which the majority of doctors are opposed. It is important to remember that laws are not just regulatory instruments. They change social attitudes. It is no coincidence that in the handful of jurisdictions overseas that have chosen to go down the road of legalising 'assisted dying', there has been a steady rise in the number of such suicide deaths. What is being proposed in Lord Falconer's Private Member's bill is no mere amendment of the existing law but a fundamental change to it.