Back in September, I was in Glasgow to perform my show, Assisted Suicide The Musical. On the first day we arrived, needing some sustenance, we headed to the pub opposite the hotel. There were no tables free but a couple of women invited me, my partner and some of the cast to join them at theirs.
We got chatting, gained their menu recommendations and it turned out that the women had recognised me from the BBC drama Silent Witness, in which I play forensic scientist Clarissa Mullery. After reassuring them that there would be a new series next year, they asked what I was doing in Glasgow.
I was wondering when this question would rear its awkward head. “We’re at Tramway theatre with a show…’” I began. They were clearly impressed and moved onto the inevitable “What’s the show called?” Without hesitation nor apology, I said: “It’s called Assisted Suicide The Musical.” The table went quiet. “Well that’s a conversation stopper!” the woman said with a laugh. And that was when one of the other cast members chipped in and said: “No, the show is a conversation starter.”
I’m not religious, nor anti choice and yet I do not support the legalisation of medically assisted suicide
Assisted Suicide The Musical is exactly that – a conversation starter, opening up discussion around this most difficult of subjects. Perhaps most surprisingly it’s doing so from the perspective of someone who is opposed to assisted suicide. Yes, I’m not religious, nor anti choice and yet I do not support the legalisation of medically assisted suicide whereby a doctor can assist some people to end their lives in certain circumstances.
Although the media and opinion polls would have us believe that the majority of the UK population believe it’s a humane choice to license doctors to provide assisted suicide for terminally ill and disabled people, myself and many others disagree. Those concerned about the passing of an assisted suicide law include many disabled people, the majority of doctors, including the British Medical Association, and, as of September 2015, MPs who voted by almost three to one to defeat such a law.
I’m a wheelchair user who needs 24 hour assistance with the most personal of tasks. The people we see in the media calling for help to end their lives often look like me. No, they often look healthier than I do. But when we have so few representations of disabled people on TV or in the media then the assumption becomes that people like me must find life unbearable and that of course we’d want to end our lives. Perhaps that’s why I’ve had complete strangers tell me that if they were like me then they couldn’t go on. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I oppose assisted suicide
Or maybe my views on this subject have been shaped by my overly reliant relationship with the NHS, which has taught me that doctors can be fallible, prejudiced and that medical mistakes happen. I wouldn’t be alive without the NHS but I recognise that it’s currently under-staffed and under-resourced. Against a backdrop of longer shifts, difficulty in obtaining appointments and the rationing of certain treatments, should we really be pushing further pressures onto our reluctant doctors?
As a passionate campaigner, I’ve debated this subject on Newsnight on various occasions, I’ve been on a euthanasia road trip to all the countries where assisted suicide or euthanasia are legal and I made this experience into a two-part BBC World Service radio documentary, When Assisted Death is Legal, which you can listen to at assistedsuicidethemusical.com. And then five years ago, I had the idea of combining my life as a performer with my life as a campaigner. Assisted Suicide The Musical was born.
The show is best described as a TED talk with show tunes and this September, supported by an amazing cast, Morecambe-based director Mark Whitelaw and composer Ian Hill, it premiered at the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank. The show was sold out and we received standing ovations. People laughed and cried and some even heckled but most importantly, as they left the theatre and in the bar afterwards, they were talking about this most difficult of subjects – how we die. The show is indeed a conversation starter. I couldn’t be more proud.
Liz Carr is an actor, comedian and disability rights campaigner. She grew up in Wirral and her first on-stage performance after university was at the Unity Theatre, Liverpool in the early 2000s. Assisted Suicide the Musical is at Unity Theatre, Liverpool, 17-18 November, 8pm. To book tickets, call the box office on 0151 709 4988 or visit www.unitytheatreliverpool.co.uk