Sharon Johnston, age 60, was paralyzed from a fall down the stairs a few years ago, and decided she would rather die than live with a disability. Through the assisted suicide campaign My Death, My Decision, Sharon was connected with 70-year-old Sue Lawford, who agreed to escort her to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland to die.
Sharon, who was single, said prior to her death that she was “not depressed at all” and that she could “go out on the town” and “get about.”
“It’s not like I’m trapped in bed or bedridden. But I don’t want the care,” she said. She had hoped to travel in her retirement, but instead needed the assistance of caregivers due to the fall. She said she would have committed suicide but didn’t have access to enough medications to kill herself with and didn’t “want to do a botched suicide.”
Sue helped Sharon get to Dignitas, but while at the airport and in the hours leading up to Sharon’s death, the police and social services attempted to intervene. According to the Mirror, guidelines on assisted suicide investigation say, “Police should seek to interview such a suspect under caution as a voluntary attendee.” After Sharon’s death, Sue was arrested and officers searched her home. Though the investigation into Sharon’s death was eventually dropped, Sue said she hopes to never go to Dignitas again — but that ultimately she would.
“I would obviously need to weigh up the individual circumstances,” she said. “But for the same reasons I felt compelled to help Sharon – whom I’d never met – I would have to say yes.”
Sue has expressed that she was concerned that police were investigating Sharon’s death because of discrimination. She believes they treated her differently because of her physical disability, questioning if she were potentially mentally or emotionally impaired as well. Sue maintains that Sharon was “sharp as a tack.”
But if she had been able-bodied, would Sue have helped her to die? Assisted suicide discriminates against disabled and ill individuals — existing under the assumption that they would rather die than live with challenges. Sharon was disabled, and suicide — death — was therefore viewed as a valid treatment.
Like many people who seek access to physician-assisted death, Sharon did not want to be on the receiving end of caregiving. Whether it was because she didn’t want to feel like a burden or she wanted more freedom in her life, Sharon was not happy with living paralyzed. She wanted to travel and felt unable to do so. Instead of being assisted in the fulfillment of those dreams, Sharon was assisted into death — not because she was dying, but because she was living with a disability.
Sue has been applauded for her assistance in escorting Sharon to her death and has received positive press surrounding her statement that she would do it again.
Before her death, Sharon had advocated for assisted suicide to be legalized in the U.K. At the same time, Nikki Kenward was fighting against such legalized killing. Thirty years ago she was paralyzed by Guillain-Barré Syndrome. Her son was just one year old at the time. Nikki couldn’t breathe on her own, she couldn’t speak, and only had control of her right eye.
“I had a tracheotomy because I had to go onto a breathing machine and I had that for about four-and-a-half months,” she explained. “I felt very definitely I still want to be alive, I must be here for my son and I must be here for Merv (her husband). I didn’t want to die and yet if you had asked me that before it happened, I would have said, ‘If anything like that happens to me, I don’t want to live.’ Boy, did I have a lesson to learn.”
She said, “[Assisted death] is not just about you. It is about the door that will open for other people who are seen as less worthy. There is not enough in society that says if you’re disabled, or old, for God’s sake that means you matter.”
Nikki, despite the challenges of life with a disability, saw the value in her life and what she would still be able to add to the lives of her husband and son.
“It [assisted dying] stops you mattering,” she said, “because you can just be got rid of. And then that will change the way we see each other. It’s too dangerous.”
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