The Office for National Statistics (ONS) latest data has revealed that terminally ill people are twice as likely to take their own lives than those in the general population who are not terminally ill. Some would examine this and say, let’s change the law on assisted suicide to make it easier for this group to kill themselves. On the other hand, many public bodies, including those in the disability sector, palliative care doctors, parliamentarians, and the judiciary, are implacably opposed to changing the law on assisted suicide. Instead, they argue that more needs to be done to support dying and vulnerable people by providing universal access to treatment for their physical and psychological needs.
The cohort examined in the ONS study were predominantly people with a new diagnosis of a physical illness such as heart disease, and studies confirm that people are at the highest risk of suicide at diagnosis. Opponents of assisted suicide are deeply concerned about whether patients are assessed for any mental illness and if any specialist support is offered at the point of diagnosis. They suggest that appropriate supportive interventions at diagnosis may help alleviate suicidal thoughts.
If we now imagine that the study focussed on young people with eating disorders, not older people with heart disease. The findings might be similar, but there would be an outrage if the solution to these findings were to legalise assisted suicide. Instead, there would be a demand for better mental health support. Why, therefore, should older people with terminal conditions be treated differently?
Baroness Campbell of Surbiton, Founder of Not Dead Yet UK (NDYUK), says, “We know we have the ability, technology, and medical expertise to help people live and offer them a comfortable, dignified death. Sadly, this option is not available to everyone, as high-quality health, social and palliative care are in short supply”.
People diagnosed with a terminal illness or born with a terminal illness need to feel protected, cared for and supported. If we change the law on assisted suicide, we suggest the opposite, that terminally ill people are expendable, and their lives are less valuable.
Baroness Finlay of Llandaff has successfully campaigned for a law to ensure that palliative care should be offered throughout the country. This could mean that appropriate end of life care becomes more widely available, which should help reduce the incidence of suicide.
When I think about the future and how we care for terminally ill people, I want to see a world where everyone has access to the support they need, where the dying feel valued and are treated with kindness and respect. Assisted suicide should never be seen as a treatment plan.
Zeynab Al-Khero Researcher NDYUK