Assisted dying
Life & Death
6 min read

What do you make of Esther?

A campaigner’s call to change an assisted dying law got family calling MND sufferer Michael Wenham. Here he shares why such legalisation will increase people’s fear of dying.
An image of a woman wearing formal clothing is overlaid by a BBC logo, a programme logo, a sound wave illustration and a caption.
Today Programme post about Esther Rantzen's comments.

"What do you make of Esther Rantzen?" asked my brother. 

I knew what he was talking about, as no doubt all listeners of Radio 4's Today Programme would have done. Clearly the advocates of assisted dying, or specifically suicide, have launched the next round of their campaign, even enlisting the late Diana Rigg, whose resemblance to my wife was once commented on by an old welsh policemen, as a witness. Radio 4’s Today Programme devoted a great deal of airtime to the subject over a number of days.  

My reply to my brother was that I thought it was a good thing if we were more open about the subject of death and dying. After all they are events everyone without exception will come in contact with at some point or another. So, the sooner we stop treating it as a taboo subject the better. However, the dangers of legalising assisted suicide, are proved by places like Canada and Belgium. 

I don’t see any way to protect us from such coercion, internal or external, except to demonstrate through legislation that every life, however tenuous, is equally important.


In January this year I made a submission to the Parliamentary Health and Social Care Committee consultation on Assisted dying/assisted suicide. Here’s some of that submission. 

“I am writing as an individual who was diagnosed with a rare form of Motor Neurone Disease (MND) twenty-two years ago and who has experienced the condition’s relentless deterioration since then. There are a number of my contemporaries who have survived that long. That, and witnessing the ravages of the disease on friends in our local MNDA branch plus an Ethics qualification from Oxford, is the extent of my expertise.” 

“My first observation is how positively my contemporaries, with short or longer prognoses, with the disease seize hold of life. Clearly there are some who, like Rob Burrows, devote themselves to fund-raising and creating awareness; while others enjoy the opportunities of life that come their way. What might have seemed a death sentence has proved a challenge to live. 

"Secondly, I have recently discovered myself how expert professional care can enhance what is often portrayed as undignified dependence. Good caring can in fact add to quality of life. The sad thing however is that it is not something which the state will normally provide. Along with terminal palliative care, domestic social care must surely be a spending priority for any government that cares about the well-being of all its citizens. I’m fortunate to live an area of excellent MND provision and good, though not abundant, palliative care. But I understand that this is not equally spread through the country. If it were, I suspect it would reduce the fear of dying which must be a major motivator for assistance to ending one’s life. 

"Ironically, in MND, according to the Association’s information sheet, How will I die?, those fears are greatly exaggerated: 

In reality, most people with MND have a peaceful death. The final stages of MND will usually involve gradual weakening of the breathing muscles and increasing sleepiness. This is usually the cause of death, either because of an infection or because the muscles stop working. 

Specialist palliative care supports quality of life through symptom control. practical help, medication to ease symptoms and emotional support for you and your family. 

When breathing becomes weaker, you may feel breathless and this can be distressing. However, your health care professionals can provide support to reduce anxiety. 

You can also receive medication to ease symptoms throughout the course of the disease, not just in the later stages. If you have any concerns about the way medication will affect you, ask the professionals who are supporting you for guidance. 

Further weakening of the muscles involved in breathing will cause tiredness and increasing sleepiness. Over a period of time, which can be hours, days or weeks, your breathing is likely to become shallower. This usually leads to reduced consciousness, so that death comes peacefully as breathing slowly reduces and eventually stops.

"So, this is a third and subtle danger of legalising assisted dying/suicide. It would increase people’s fear of the inevitable fact of death and dying. I think this can be one factor in explaining why, in jurisdictions which have introduced it, we see it being extended beyond the first strict limits. It is held out as an answer to this fearful fact, death, whereas in fact death and dying should be talked about in realistic terms, as normal, as concisely outlined by Dr Kathryn Mannix. As she says, normally dying isn’t as bad as we think

If the government should be doing anything, the first thing it might well do, is to promote informed education about dying of the sort exemplified by specialists such as Dr Mannix, as well as adequately funding her former specialism of palliative care. It should start with schools’ curricula. After all every child will have encountered death at some stage. 

Finally, the dangers of coercion, in my experience, are not so much external as internal. It’s often rightly observed that prolonged pain is worse for the engaged spectator than for the sufferer. If you care for someone, seeing them struggling is barely tolerable. You may wish to see their struggle over, but underlying that wish is your own desire to be spared more of your own horror show. The person who is ‘suffering’ however has that strong survival instinct, common to all humans, and is more concentrated on living than dying. Having said that, when you are depressed, as might be natural, that instinct gets temporarily eclipsed. Then you need protection from your own dark sky. It is at such times that your other inner demons emerge: your sense of being a burden - to your family, to your friends (if you have any), to the NHS and to the state purse; your fear of losing your savings and of leaving nothing to your loved ones; your fear of pain and of dying (exaggerated by popular mythology), and your sense of suffering, heightened by your depression.  

"For most of us with long incurable diseases, it’s these internal perceptions that are most coercive, although they can be easily compounded or even exploited from outside. I don’t see any way to protect us from such coercion, internal or external, except to demonstrate through legislation that every life, however tenuous, is equally important to our society and worth caring for. ‘Any man’s death diminishes me...’ and so we will value it to the end." 

I'm grateful that when I received my 'motor neurone disorder' diagnosis, which was initially frightening, I couldn't be tempted to opt for an early death. Instead of one Christmas with my family (as I warned them), I've enjoyed 22 more Christmases. That was the law against suicide fulfilling its safeguarding function, protecting the vulnerable, as I was then. Contrary to my preconceptions, my form of MND (PLS) is very gradual and I've been able to live a full if increasingly limited life, thanks to my wife, Jane, who cares for me 100 per cent. 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  

My view is still that legalising assisted dying/suicide has more cons than pros. The better choice is to invest in hospice and palliative care, so that everyone may have access to pain and symptom care in the last years of their life. 

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.