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HomeNewsLaura Keynes: Beware celebs bearing sob stories about assisted suicide

Laura Keynes: Beware celebs bearing sob stories about assisted suicide


I bet you’ve never heard of Michael Cubiss. You’ll have heard of Tony Nicklinson though, the man suffering locked-in syndrome who fought a battle in the courts for the ‘right to die’.

Nicklinson died naturally six days after losing his appeal, revealing the irony that he’d always had the right to die – it’s a right granted every human being at birth. What Nicklinson actually wanted was the right to be killed.

Tony Nicklinson’s case was heavily publicised by the media. It was a counsel of despair, and it led one family to contact the BBC with an alternative vision of life with locked-in syndrome.

Michael Cubiss developed the condition after suffering a stroke, but the short film he and his family made with the BBC  shows how differently he handled his fate compared to Tony Nicklinson.

The film is an extraordinary testament to the power of good care, and the indomitable human spirit.

Asked whether the media’s coverage of Tony Nicklinson gave a warped impression of his condition, Michael said:

“There are many people like me who just chose to get on with their lives. Sadly people believe anything they see in the news and I guess I wanted to send a message out to the public at large that we are not all wanting to end our lives.”

But you rarely hear stories like that of Michael Cubiss. They simply aren’t as well publicised. Rather than engaging in the substance of the argument regarding assisted dying, or presenting alternative points of view from ordinary people, the media relies on celebrity cases, and it’s hardly balanced.

The latest story on assisted story comes from actor Sir Patrick Stewart writing in the Daily Mail at the weekend.

He’s a patron of ‘Dignity in Dying’ which is not (as you might expect from its deceptively gentle sounding title) a charity pushing for better palliative care but an organisation which defines ‘dignity’ in death the ability to say where, how, and when; having control, in other words – and never mind that ‘having control’ requires someone else to commit an act of murder by administering a lethal injection.

Sir Patrick joins the growing list of celebrities reported in the press for being pro-assisted-death. Last week it was the author Ian McEwan, writing in The Times.

Before that it was Cilla Black, who announced that she’d like to die at 75: “If I could still fit into my jeans, have fun and not be a burden to anyone, I might feel differently.”

Or it was Richard and Judy announcing their creepy suicide pact.

These celebrities never engage with the reasoned arguments, or facts and statistics, but instead trot out the hard cases, using sentiment to manipulate public opinion.

For every cancer sufferer like the one mentioned by Patrick Stewart, a woman called Gillian who it seems was badly let down by the medical establishment if she had to endure such pain, there are others like the teenager Stephen Sutton who raised millions for the Teenage Cancer Trust.

Stephen Sutton expressed a love for life, inspiring other cancer sufferers with his example. He may not have had any control over how and when he died but he certainly died with great dignity.

With Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill set for a second reading in Parliament next month, it’s vital that the public hear a balanced and reasoned account of all the arguments for and against.

Otherwise it’s law by celebrity, where those with easy access to newspaper editors can always get a column in the comment pages, throw in a sob story and manipulate public opinion. Ordinary people like Michael Cubiss, or Granny down the road, can hardly compete.

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Laura Keynes
Laura Keynes
Dr Keynes is a Cambridge-based academic, writer and critic with two very young children. She writes for Standpoint magazine, the Catholic Herald and The Tablet. Find her on twitter @LMKeynes.

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