Protecting the vulnerable: a report on Tanni Grey-Thompson’s talk

“Excuse me, are you Tanni Grey-Thompson?” She’d been off the train two minutes when a woman stopped us on the station platform and, with the kind of fluster you reserve for meeting your heroes, explained that Grey-Thompson had long been an inspiration. Her reputation having gone before her, the talk on Tuesday was well-attended by an audience with mixed views on the Falconer Bill for the legalisation of assisted suicide, which began its Committee Stage in the House of Lords last Friday.

Grey-Thompson is known in Parliament for her work on disabled rights, welfare reform and campaigning for women in sports. It is the issue of assisted suicide that has prompted the biggest reaction she’s seen as a peer, though. “We’ve had more mail on this than on anything else, ever.” She says, incredulous, that normally people write to her asking for social care, help, housing. Now they write asking for the right to die. It’s too drastic a solution, she argues. “We don’t have a perfect system. We need to talk about palliative care in this country, about hospices, about social support,” before we make death the answer.

The first issue she addressed was the polarised presentation the issue often receives in the media. Grey-Thompson highlighted the real complexity of the issue and her concerns about the potential for confusion created by the manipulation of language. Talking about ‘medicine’ for a procedure that kills; the use of ‘assisted dying’ over ‘physician assisted suicide’ to convey the idea of a passive ‘slipping away’, rather than the less palatable recognition that this is involving a doctor in someone’s death. Nor is the simple dichotomy sometimes presented, between supporting assisted suicide and wanting people to suffer, one that makes sense in Grey-Thompson’s eyes. “I’ve never met someone opposed to assisted suicide who wants people to be in pain.” She worries that those behind the Bill expect it to be passed on principle (the very good principle of limiting suffering), planning to “deal with the sticky bits” afterwards. We need to ask practical questions about assisted suicide now, she urges: “who, when, what and how”.

Tanni arrivals 2

The audience arrives at the Blue Boar Lecture Theatre

The Bill endangers the lives of the vulnerable, Grey-Thompson argues. Research carried out by Scope reports that 70% of disabled people are concerned about pressure being put on people to end their lives should this bill pass. It is the same Mary Warnock, Grey-Thompson’s childhood hero for her defense of the right to mainstream education of those with special needs, who suggests that those suffering from illness or disabilities may have a ‘duty to die’ for the sake of society. Where hospice care is a postcode lottery and beds in NHS hospitals may be scarce and expensive, it’s not difficult to imagine this kind of philosophy becoming normalised were assisted suicide to be made legal. One of Grey-Thompson correspondents contacted her recently to say that her local authority have taken all her support away, leaving her with the option of going into a care home at the age of 43. ‘I might as well die,’ she wrote.

The Bill’s safeguards are inadequate and unclear. Grey-Thompson thinks the six-month life expectancy condition an arbitrary limit, and worries that many disabled people would fit into that category. There is a lot of detail missing, particularly about the role of the doctor in the procedure – the conscience clause, for example, is unclear. In Oregon, the model for Falconer’s proposals, the GP must have known the patient for 12 weeks, a period Grey-Thompson thinks too short. The ‘cooling-off period’ once the decision is taken would be of just 14 days. Most disturbing is the prospect of such a fundamental change in the doctor-patient relationship, which would leave the system open to abuse. Doctors make very difficult decisions concerning the end of life all the time, Tanni points out, but such a change in the end they aim at is “moving the goalposts” too dramatically. Once it is legitimate for a doctor to participate in someone’s death, the opportunity is there for subtle pressure: an expectation could be quietly established that someone will choose assisted suicide, based perhaps on a subjective judgement of their ‘quality of life’. And on top of this, if the Bill gets through, she’s worried about the floodgates opening to more radical options. In Belgium and the Netherlands, where even children can be euthanised, the number of people opting to die in this manner is soaring.

Tanni talking

Her speech was peppered with poignant anecdotes from her own experience, and from that of those who write to her. We heard about the disturbing reaction of a doctor when she fell pregnant, who gave his opinion that “People like you shouldn’t have children.” Grey-Thompson’s response was characteristically tongue-in-cheek: “What, people from Wales?” She’s got thick skin – she’s needed it. Despite – perhaps in the face of – letters that say things like “I hope your daughter dies a long and painful death”, Tanni’s resolve to oppose the Bill has only been strengthened. The key positive step she proposes is the scrutiny of palliative care, hospices and social support networks. She pointed out the absurdity of spending huge amounts of money on preventing suicide, whilst at the same time funding plans help people do so with more ease. Grey-Thompson thinks it unlikely that the Bill will make much headway this year: the Commons won’t want to touch such an issue just prior to a general election. The reports from the Committee stage will hopefully clarify some of the grey areas the current draft Bill skirts around, but we can’t hope for assisted suicide to be made ‘safe’: giving doctors the power – and the responsibility – to help kill their patients is ground too dangerous on which to legislate.

(Amy Owens)