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Assisted dying
Life & Death
4 min read

Behind the data: the social messages physician assisted suicide sends

If intense suffering caused by society drives autistic people to seek assisted death, then society has failed. Henna Cundill seeks the stories behind the data about such deaths.
A hand rest gently on another outstretched hand.
Alexander Grey on Unsplash.

Statistically speaking, autistic people are far more likely to die by suicide than non-autistic people. They are also, statistically speaking, far more likely to die by physician assisted suicide than non-autistic people, in countries where this is allowed.  

For example, in a study of 927 people who sought physician assisted suicide in the Netherlands (where this is legal) 39 of them were autistic. That’s about 4 per cent, but the prevalence of diagnosed autism in the Netherlands is only 1-2 per cent. The researchers go on to note that 21 per cent of these 39 people cite autism or intellectual disability as the “sole cause of suffering” that had prompted them to request assistance to die.  

I don’t like speaking statistically. For a start, 21 per cent of 39 people is 8.19 people, which raises obvious questions. A little digging reveals that what the researchers mean really is eight people. Eight people with eight unique stories that include an account of autistic suffering so intense that they asked for help to end their lives.  

But we do not have those stories, not really. Included in the report are carefully anonymised excerpts from the physicians’ notes, and this is the nearest that we can get.  

‘The patient suffered from his inability to participate in society [ … ] [He] was not able to live among people, because he was easily overstimulated. This made him isolated’ (2019 (22), male, 70s, ASD) 

‘The patient had felt unhappy since childhood and was persistently bullied because he was just a bit different from others [ … ] [He] longed for social contacts but was unable to connect with others. This reinforced his sense of loneliness. The consequences of his autism were unbearable for him [ … ] The prospect of having to live on in this way for years was an abomination to him and he could not bear it’ (2021 (26), male, 20s, ASD) 

The debate about legalising physician assisted suicide in the UK is ongoing, and the British Medical Association have provided a helpful guidance document which sets out the main arguments, both for and against, without making a recommendation either way. In the document, they observe that the reasons people ask for assisted suicide are predominantly personal and social, not clinical, and also that “laws send social messages.” I agree that laws do that, and I also think that those seeking assisted suicide send social messages too.  

For example, even just from these two tiny excerpts, I hear that a life worth living is one where people can participate in society and have social contacts, even if they are a “just a bit different from others.” It would be good to hear more. It would be good to sit down over a cup of coffee with each of these two men and ask them all my questions about their lived wisdom when it comes to autism.  

I could ask “2019 (22), male, 70s, ASD”: 

What causes the overstimulation - are there places where you don’t feel that?  

Can we create more such places for autistic people to socialise?  

And I could ask “2021 (26), male, 20s, ASD”:  

What makes you feel different?  

What kind of social contacts and connections do you think that you are looking for?  

But of course, I can’t do that, because these two men have been assisted to die.   

The word ‘welcome’ is striking to me here. What does it mean to welcome someone, not to merely include or tolerate, but to really welcome someone. 

When approached for comment, autistic theologian Claire Williams said:  

‘There is something of a personal and social tragedy reflected in these cases. If we understand that much of the difficulty that autistic people suffer is caused by society – as per the neurodiversity paradigm – then it is the case that these two nameless men were failed by society. They felt that their lives could not find a place in an unwelcoming world. It is, of course, their choice to end their lives but I do also think that God chose to start their lives and finds them to be infinitely valuable. They were both made in God’s image and reflect something of it. That they felt there isn’t a place for them that is suitable is a tragedy because society should do better to welcome them.’ 

The word ‘welcome’ is striking to me here. What does it mean to welcome someone, not to merely include or tolerate, but to really welcome someone, even if they seem ‘a little bit different from others’? Dr Léon van Ommen, another theologian who writes about autism, suggests that it is a matter of making oneself and one’s resources fully available to that person, to the point where they feel that you belong to them. This is not to promote relationships with unhealthy power dynamics, but to highlight that when a person feels truly welcomed by another, they feel the opposite of owing a debt or being a burden – they feel they are of value, that you would be lacking something without them.  

I feel we are lacking something without you, “2019 (22), male, 70s, ASD”. And I feel we are lacking something without you, “2021 (26), male, 20s, ASD”. Not to forget the 37 others who are a little like you. We can pause to reflect on the social messages that you have sent, what you are teaching all of us about what it means to live a “good” life. But I am sorry that you have all died now and we cannot hear more.   

Whether people in the UK should be able to choose physician assisted suicide, I, personally, am not yet sure. Like the BMA, I see and respect the very good arguments both for and against. But eight people have chosen physician assisted suicide due to autism or intellectual disability, and when it comes to the social messages that sends, I feel compelled to sit down and listen.  

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Assisted dying
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Life & Death
5 min read

The careless conflation of independence, autonomy and dignity

As Jersey begins to legalise assisted dying, there’s keyword confusion.
A elderly women in a care home stands and places her hands on the shoulders of a seated woman.
Eberhard Grossgasteiger on Unsplash.

Reviewing Canada’s legislation on assisted dying, one anonymously authored article raises the concern: “Does it make dying with dignity easier than living with dignity?” This insightful question cuts to the centre of the debate: dignity. Or more particularly, the unwitting conflation of dignity with independence, and of independence with autonomy.  

As Jersey becomes the first place in the British Isles to begin the process of legalising assisted dying, I feel that we should listen carefully as to how and where these terms are being used, both in the formal debate, and in the commentary that surrounds it. The States Assembly in Jersey voted to allow the development of assisted dying legislation for those with six months to live (or twelve months if their condition is neurodegenerative). A second vote to make assisted dying available more broadly to those who experience conditions that entail “unbearable suffering” was defeated by a narrower margin. Reading the flurry of press releases that followed the vote, these keywords, autonomy, independence, and dignity, are everywhere. But are we really thinking about what these words communicate?  

People in positions of wealth and power have more independence and autonomy, more choices and freedoms, but it is we who ascribe dignity to those in that position.

The word dignity comes from the Latin word dignus, meaning ‘worthy’, and this is still the primary definition given to the English word dignity today. The OED has it as “the quality of being worthy or honourable”, immediately followed by reference to “honourable or high estate”. If this is so, then dignity is not something that can be bought, nor assumed – it is a status conferred upon someone by the esteem in which other people hold them. The haughtiest person in the world can still be esteemed undignified, as can the richest. Moreover, the opposite is also true: we are never prevented from conferring dignity upon, and esteeming the worthiness of, those who live the humblest of lives.   

And yet, if we are honest with ourselves – do many of us not quietly associate the idea of becoming rich and powerful with becoming dignified? Do we not tend to assume the worthiness of those in high office – at least until we meet them and realise pretty quickly that they all put their trousers on one leg at a time, the same as the rest of us. This association happens because we have such a tendency to conflate dignity with independence (the ability to live without assistance from others) and autonomy (the ability to make one’s own decisions, and not have those decisions limited or interfered with). People in positions of wealth and power have more independence and autonomy, more choices and freedoms, but it is we who ascribe dignity to those in that position. It is society who sees the autonomy of those in high status, and esteems it as dignified.    

Does this not unwittingly suggest that choosing to live in a state of extreme dependence on palliative care is, by implication, undignified? 

Repeatedly ancient wisdom, in the bible, warns us not to assume that dignity comes with the freedom of wealth or power. All the great ‘heroes’ of that book suffer their indignities. Fresh from the success of his Ark project, Noah gets drunk and exposes himself. Elated from a victory against an enemy, King David dances half-naked through the streets. These are just two examples of the catalogue of embarrassments and mishaps that beset nearly all the kings and leaders whose stories are told as part of the Christian story. One after another, they stumble and struggle with life and leadership. The apostle Paul explains that this is because God uses the foolish things of this world to shame human pride, “for even the foolishness of God is still wiser than human wisdom.” Therefore, Paul argues, God chooses to speak to us through the weak and the lowly things and people of this world. Never was this demonstrated so clearly as when Jesus was born in a draughty stable, lived a life of poverty, and died a criminal’s death on a cross.  

But what has all this to do with the debate over assisted dying? Well, I am struck by how often the idea of losing one’s independence (through disabling or terminal illness) is conflated with losing one’s dignity, and so dying through personal choice (autonomy) is presented as regaining it. One campaign group that speaks to this debate even calls itself ‘Dignity in Dying’ – but does this not unwittingly suggest that choosing to live in a state of extreme dependence on palliative care is, by implication, undignified?  

Independence is not possible for everybody, or not possible to the same degree. And dignity? Well, dignity is possible for anyone. 

The Dean of Jersey, the Very Reverend Mike Keirle, has spoken of his concern that the change in legislation will make vulnerable people feel pressured to end their lives. Examples from Canada, where physician assisted dying is already available, show that his concern is not unfounded. In 2022, Canadian veteran and Paralympian Christine Gauthier phoned her caseworker to chase up the over-due installation of her new wheelchair ramp. She then describes how she was horrified to find herself being advised to consider assisted dying instead.  

"It is remotely just what they're doing,” says Gauthier, “exhausting us to the point of no return. […] I was like, 'Are you serious?' Like that easy, you're going to be helping me to die but you won't help me to live?"

Gauthier is not alone – she spoke out when she learned that four other Canadian veterans had reported similar experiences. In these unhappy moments, one can see how dangerous the assumption can be – the assumption that no one would want to live a life of needing help. Here are disabled people who do want to live, and this assumption, this careless conflation of independence, autonomy, and dignity, leaves them fighting for their right to do so. Why should anyone have to fight or even speak for their right not to commit suicide? It is little wonder that disabled actress, Liz Carr, describes assisted dying legislation as “terrifying” for disabled people. 

I respect that there are terminally ill people, and those who love them, who speak from a desire to end their suffering; it is clear that people on all sides of the debate need to have this difficult and emotionally charged conversation. But whatever the eventual outcome in terms of legislation, we must be careful that it is not based on careless assumptions, or on the conflation of one thing with an entirely different other. Independence is not possible for everybody, or not possible to the same degree. And dignity? Well, dignity is possible for anyone – it is a state that can be conferred whenever, and upon whomever society chooses to confer it. Autonomy is the matter in question – we are talking about autonomy in dying. And whatever happens, we should by no means legislate in a way that leaves disabled people esteemed unworthy, left open to the indignity of fighting for their right to live.