Mother of severely disabled man: protect the vulnerable

My son will appear “expendable” if the law on assisted suicide is changed, the mother of a severely disabled man has said.

In an emotional interview with the Daily Mail, Elisabeth Shepherd also warned that people like her son, James, could feel pressurised into ending their lives if the existing law is relaxed.

During the interview Miss Shepherd admitted that she had previously considered helping her son to die, but she said: “It’s this close involvement in his care that convinces me that we must maintain the protection of the courts for people like my son, even from me, his mother”.

James, now 36 years old, was hit by a car at the age of eight.

But his mother warned that it would have been impossible for her to make a fair decision about helping her son to end his life during the “insanity” and “mental chaos” that followed the accident.

She also warned that any change in the law on assisted suicide would alter the way in which society views the severely disabled and the terminally ill.

Miss Shepherd said: “My fear is that if people begin to think of assisted suicide as an option then the balance will change. As a society, we will shift towards a different mindset. A mindset in which people like James begin to appear expendable.”

She added: “I also fear it may mean that people like James begin to feel that being such a burden on a carer, who is very often a close relative, is a choice they are actively making by not committing suicide. That guilt may be enough to tip the balance into them taking their life.”

Miss Shepherd also cautioned that the current debate surrounding assisted suicide runs the risk of corrupting our idea of what it means to be human.

She said: “I do believe in a God, but my instinct that life is precious is not just grounded in that. It’s partly from watching doctors fight so hard to preserve the least glimmer of life.

“It’s also because I feel we’re sold an ideal and people feel that if they don’t have it they’re not enough. But if we become a tickbox society, where we say no because someone can’t have sex or cannot feed themself, where will that leave us?”

Miss Shepherd’s warnings follow a series of high profile media cases about assisted suicide.

Speaking earlier this month Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, said that we must ignore celebrity campaigns for assisted suicide, and instead listen to the voices of disabled people and the silent majority.

The Archbishop said: “I would rather listen to the voices of disabled people than to the voices of celebrities or the voices of 1,000 people in an opinion poll.”

And a disability leader has also warned that vulnerable individuals need support and encouragement instead of help to commit suicide.

Phil Friend, chairman of the Royal Association for Disability Rights, cautioned that any change in the law would “create a class of people from whom legal protection can be taken away”.

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