Thursday, October 23, 2008

Warnock backs student suicide

Baroness Warnock is back in the papers again this week, supporting the suicide of a young man paralysed in a rugby accident. Daniel James was only 23 when he was helped to commit suicide in a Swiss clinic. Surgery to repair damage to his vertebrae had been unsuccessful and he was facing the prospect of being paralysed for the rest of his life.

When a young man takes his life it is always and everywhere a tragedy. Daniel may well have felt that his life was not worth living, he had just been through a horrific trauma and tried to end his life on a number of occasions before travelling to Switzerland. Coming to terms with his situation would have taken time - possibly years - but there is no reason why he could not have gone on to lead a full and happy life. He was clearly a highly talented young man - who knows what opportunities lay ahead for him?

The irony is that when people lend their support to people with disabilities committing suicide, they are making a judgement about that person's value, possibly without even realising it. I remember once listening to a speaker from the disability rights group No Less Human on the subject of suicide. She pointed at two women in front of her, one of them had spina bifida and was in a wheelchair, the other was a non-disabled twenty-something about to get married. The speaker said something along the lines of:

If Alison here went to her doctor and said: "I'm tired of life, I'm fed up of being in a wheelchair, I'm sick of the pain. I think I want to end my life" the doctor might well be sympathetic to her request. If Fiorella on the other hand went to the doctor and said: "I'm fed up with life. I'm being worked to death [much laughter], my life has no purpose and I think I want to end it" we all know the doctor would react very differently.

He would say: "You're young, you've got your whole life ahead of you. You have everything to live for. What you need, my dear, is a holiday. You're depressed."

We all knew what she meant. In the doctor's mind, a healthy young person who expressed the desire to commit suicide would immediately be recognised as depressed and in need of help to deal with the depression. A disabled person expressing precisely the same thoughts might appear to be simply being realistic, if in the doctor's mind disabled people's lives are of less value than everyone else's.

There can be few greater causes of heartache than a suffering loved one pleading to be helped to die, but I could no more agree to help a disabled person end their life, than I could say to an able-bodied person who was threatening to throw themselves in front of a train: "Go ahead if you feel it is right for you. It is not for me to make a judgement on your behalf."

When a person expresses the desire to die, the response needs to be compassionate and down-to-earth, whatever that person's situation