Assisted dying debate terrifying for disabled people, says actress Liz Carr

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As Liz Carr, a renowned comedian, actress, and disability rights activist, steps into the office of Dr. Ellen Wiebe, a Canadian clinician, she is struck by the incongruous presence of a black leather sofa in the corner. This is no ordinary doctor’s office, however, as Carr is about to discover.

Dr. Wiebe is guiding Carr through the space where people come to end their lives with the assistance of a physician. “They can snuggle up with their loved ones if they want,” explains Dr. Wiebe. “It’s a good place for some people.”

Carr, who has been a wheelchair user since falling ill at the age of seven, contemplates her own eligibility for assisted dying under Canadian law. “Apart from the fact I don’t have the desire, I think probably I would be eligible,” she tells Dr. Wiebe.

The doctor acknowledges this, but emphasizes that Carr would need to convince her of “suffering unbearably” in order to receive the lethal cocktail of drugs. In Canada, individuals with disabilities can access assisted dying, provided they feel their condition is intolerable and irreversible.

A Shifting Landscape

Carr has been a vocal opponent of assisted dying for over a decade, but the debate has recently gained momentum. Scotland is set to discuss an assisted dying bill this autumn, while UK Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has expressed support for a nationwide change in the law.

The Silent Witness actress is deeply concerned about the potential impact on vulnerable or disabled individuals. Her new documentary, “Better Off Dead?,” explores these fears and makes the case against assisted dying in the UK.

Current Legislation and Ongoing Debates

Assisted suicide is currently prohibited in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, with a maximum prison sentence of 14 years. In Scotland, while there is no specific offense of assisted suicide, euthanasia is illegal and can be prosecuted as murder or culpable homicide.

Just last week, broadcaster Esther Rantzen, who is terminally ill with lung cancer, pleaded with members of Parliament to attend a debate on a petition arguing that “terminally ill people who are mentally sound and near the end of their lives should not suffer unbearably against their will.”

Carr’s Concerns and the Canadian Precedent

Carr is afraid that changing the law to allow assisted dying for the terminally ill could eventually lead to the inclusion of those who are poor, disabled, or mentally ill in the UK – or even compel them to choose this option. She points to the evolution of Canada’s legislation, which was expanded in 2016 to include those whose death was “reasonably foreseeable” and again in 2021 to encompass those “suffering unbearably” from medical conditions.

Differing Perspectives

Journalist Melanie Reid, who became tetraplegic after a horse-riding accident, sees a potential change in the law as a matter of human rights, believing she should have the right to decide the fate of her own body.

However, Dr. Katherine Sleeman, a palliative care specialist, expresses concern for individuals who may feel they are a burden to their families and choose assisted dying as a result. She believes no assisted dying law can be completely safe, and that some who do not truly want to die will “slip through the net.”

Loroner, a King’s Counsel who has sponsored assisted dying bills, argues that the practice should be limited to those with terminal illnesses and that robust legal safeguards must be in place to protect vulnerable individuals. He firmly states that “being disabled is most certainly not the same as being terminally ill.

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