Tom Shakespeare is well-known in the disability community in the UK. In the US, it's mostly the disability studies community that is familiar with him. Shakespeare has his feet planted in the realms of disability rights, bioethics and disability studies.
Over the past couple of years, Shakespeare has taken a strong position favoring legalization of assisted suicide for the "terminally ill" (although he generally doesn't define "terminal") and has harshly criticized disability activists and organizations that oppose such policies.
Therefore, it didn't come as a surprise when Shakespeare published an essay in The Guardian [yesterday], reiterating his support for legalization and his lack of respect for disability advocates and activists who oppose those efforts.
His essay is titled "A chance for dignity in dying" and carries a partial subtitle of "Jane Campbell is wrong" (referring to Campbell's essay in the same paper).
Let me say it plainly: Tom Shakespeare is wrong. His essay relies on some rather easy platitudes, fuzzy assertions and some pretty gross misrepresentations of euthanasia laws.
After first relating that over 100 people from the UK have gone to Dignitas in Switzerland, Shakespeare writes:
This is not a progressive or humane state of affairs. First, because partners or friends who travel to support dying people are at risk of prosecution once they return, a problem that Debbie Purdy's campaign has highlighted. Second, because organisations like Dignitas appear indiscriminate about whom they help to die. Available information suggests that at least five of the British people whom Dignitas has assisted did not have a terminal illness, but conditions such as spinal injury and diabetes.
Lord Falconer's amendment is a temporary solution to the first problem, and one that is rightly backed by disabled peer Colin Low. The director of public prosecutions has indicated that the current practice of not prosecuting relatives is out of step with the law, which makes assisting suicide illegal in all circumstances.
First of all, it should come as no surprise to Shakespeare about the nonterminality of many of the "clients" accepted by Dignitas. Having a terminal illness or being close to death has never been a requirement for "eligibility" for their "services" - although having the right amount of cash is important.
Second, laws should address real problems. Shakespeare doesn't point to any prosecutions of relatives accompanying family members to Dignitas, because there haven't been any. That would include the families of people like Daniel James, a young man with tetraplegia. Does Shakespeare think that somehow granting immunity to the "terminal" cases will mean that cases involving nonterminally ill people will now be prosecuted? What does "terminal" mean, anyway? For the people with MS or age-related chronic conditions, which are terminal and which aren't? Shakespeare seems unconcerned with such details.
But Shakespeare really goes beyond some familiar-sounding polemics when he offers gross distortions of euthanasia laws outside of the UK:
But the real answer is to bring in effective assisted dying legislation in Britain, designed for mentally competent adults in the later stages of terminal illness, and with suitable safeguards to protect vulnerable people from abuse. Across Europe, laws are being introduced to give access to assisted dying in terminal illness: the Netherlands led the way, but Belgium and Luxemburg have now introduced similar legislation, while Spain and France are now actively contemplating legal measures to help people at the end of life.
Bullshit alert: Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg don't limit "eligibility" for assisted suicide and euthanasia to "terminal illness." Either Shakespeare hasn't bothered to research this or he is deliberately misleading readers. If it's the former, it's inexcusable from a scholar and if it's the latter, it's intellectually dishonest.
And, if Shakespeare had delved into the Netherlands a little more closely, he'd find too much to support disability rights activists he ridicules, as in the recent decriminalization of the euthanasia of disabled infants in that country.
Shakespeare, like all of us, is entitled to his opinion. And we should all be entitled to factual honesty and integrity when we debate these issues. --Stephen Drake
Not Dead Yet, 8th July 2009