Better Off Dead? review: Sombre film examines the dangers of legalising assisted suicide for disabled people

Comedian, actor, and disability rights activist Liz Carr has a message: assisted suicide should remain illegal in the UK. In a society where people campaign to have more rights over their bodies, and what we do with them, her stance may initially appear regressive. But Carr believes that, when it comes to disabled people, society sees assisted suicide as an easy way out – and that could be lethal for us. “If a non-disabled person wants to commit assisted suicide it’s seen as a tragedy,” she explains in her BBC One film Better Off Dead? “If a disabled person does, it’s a release.”

Over the past 20 years, there have been eight attempts to legalise assisted suicide in the UK, where it currently carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. In Scotland, a bill was drawn up in March proposing the introduction of “assisted death”. The issue isn’t going away anytime soon, and Carr has a right to be worried.

Her fears are heightened when she visits Canada, where assisted suicide was legalised in 2016 via a process called MAID (Medical Aid In Dying). Initially, the law was introduced just for people who are terminally ill, but that’s no longer necessarily the case. Dr Ellen Wiebe has euthanised hundreds of patients, so many that it’s now her main role. But, she says, it’s not straightforward: “You’d have to be suffering unbearably, and you’d have to convince me you’re suffering unbearably,” she tells Carr with a grin.

When Carr asks what the process is like, Wiebe points to a bog-standard black pleather sofa in a box room where she works, revealing that some of her patients sit there with a loved one as they pass, adding proudly: “This is some of the best work I’ve done in years.” The scene is enough to make anyone shudder.

Carr then visits a Canadian woman whose mum was a psychiatric nurse, and so knew all the right things to say when applying for MAID. She was persuasive. And she starved herself. After that, things moved swiftly. Her GP wasn’t consulted, MAID was approved quickly, and within 48 hours her body was being transported to a crematorium. Carr then meets a disabled man who applied for MAID because of his dire socio-economic status rather than his disability. When a local TV crew picked up his story, a fundraiser was started and suddenly he had $60,000 in his pocket. No longer in financial difficulty, he withdrew his MAID application.

In both cases, the stark commonality is that it was easier for the applicants to get MAID than for the Canadian government to deal with the underlying issues causing these people to apply for it in the first place. Is this, Carr asks, how our own government would view applications for assisted suicide made by disabled people – as an easy way out?

We hear the other side of the debate, too. Carr meets Melanie Reid, a journalist for The Times, who became disabled 10 years ago. She feels that Carr is part of one small group (disabled people) imposing their views on a larger group (the general population), and that she, Reid, has a human right to decide what happens to her body.

Reid makes an important point – although the number of disabled people in the country isn’t exactly small, it’s at least one in five, and, even if there’s no evidence on this, one would assume that this ratio is much higher for those who are considering assisted suicide.

Liz Carr (front) in the BBC documentary ‘Better Off Dead?’ (BBC / Burning Bright Productions Ltd)
Liz Carr (front) in the BBC documentary ‘Better Off Dead?’ (BBC / Burning Bright Productions Ltd)

While it’s a compelling and informative documentary, and the case studies provide real insight into disabled people’s different views and experiences around this complex issue, we don’t hear from a Black disabled person or person of colour about the effects of racism in healthcare, and how this too could affect applications for assisted dying. We also don’t hear from anybody with a terminal illness, which the BBC has argued is because the programme is a “personal view documentary”. These both feel like missed opportunities.

Towards the end of the programme, Carr is shown spending time with her disabled activist mates. It’s a joyful scene. They talk about how their lives aren’t a misery, how being disabled and needing assistance doesn’t make them less worthy or sad. One says pointedly that assisted suicide is an alternative solution for governments, rather than investing in the services disabled people need.

The UK’s reaction to Covid, where people were morbidly grouped into two categories – “worth saving” or “underlying health conditions” – has already cemented disabled people’s position as disposable in this country, Carr argues. If the UK legalises assisted suicide, it seems this could help to make that disposability a reality. And that’s a pretty scary prospect for the millions of disabled people in this country whose futures are definitely worth fighting for.