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Page last updated at 12:12 GMT, Monday, 17 November 2008

'Dear Noel, is life really not worth living?'


Noel Martin meets Liz Carr

Paralysed after being attacked by neo-Nazis, Noel Martin is planning a trip to Switzerland to commit suicide. Here, disabled broadcaster Liz Carr, who met Noel for a BBC Radio 5 Live report, writes an open letter urging him to think again.

Dear Noel,

Having met you last week, I felt the need to write and continue our discussion about your decision to end your life soon. I don't write this as someone with strong religious or pro-life views but as another disabled person, who like you uses a wheelchair, who became disabled and who needs round-the-clock assistance in their life.

Noel, is your life really not worth living?

In interviews, you repeatedly say that because of your accident, you can't feel, you can't touch the world and can only watch as it passes by. I disagree. Throughout the interview, when we talked for example about your beloved wife who you lost to cancer, you filled up, overcome with emotion.

Noel Martin
Former builder - aged 49 - lives in Birmingham, UK
Paralysed from neck down after attack by neo-Nazis in Germany in 1996
Racing enthusiast and race horse owner
Wife, Jacqui, died of cancer in 2000

In a different way, when we discussed your ongoing fights for support and assistance with your care providers, you talked with passion and anger.

You proudly showed me the racing magazine where you were "owner of the month" after your horse won at Ascot. You asked one of your staff to read out the poetry you have written since your accident. You are definitely a man who can feel.

As for not being able to touch the world around you - from an onlooker's point of view this again just isn't true. You appear to touch the world in so many ways.

You have staff who clearly respect you and enjoy working for you. You have family, a grandson and friends. Through the neo-Nazi attack that led to your accident, you have become a celebrity, a campaigner against racism, a fighter for justice. You have organised exchanges for young people from Berlin to come to Birmingham to show them that integration is possible.

You have written your autobiography. In fact Noel, it seems to me that since becoming disabled you have actually touched more people and embraced life in ways that perhaps you wouldn't have if you hadn't had your accident. You are very much alive.

I know that at the moment, your situation is frustrating. Pressure sores - the result, you say, of cutbacks in the health service - mean you've hardly been out of your bed, never mind your house, for many months now.

Wheelchair-friendly beaches

You said that as a disabled person you'll never walk on the beach, be able to stand up and cheer when your football team scores, or kiss the head of your prize-winning racehorse.

Liz Carr
I think it's too easy for society to promote assisted suicide as a right rather than work to overcome the barriers to supporting older, ill and disabled people to live fulfilled and valuable lives
Liz Carr

I can really relate to the idea that there are now things you can't do. I used to imagine walking hand-in-hand along a sunset beach with my lover. But the reality of not having four-wheel drive on my electric wheelchair and sinking, immobile into the sand, kept me on terra firma.

But if you're interested, I can let you know where there are beaches with sand so compacted that you can wheel on them with ease; others with boardwalks to the sea and there are now even beach wheelchairs.

Like you, I became disabled. But for me it was at the age of seven, following a childhood illness.

I know adapting to your new life and situation can be difficult. I remember as a teenager being too unwell to go out with my friends, thinking I'd always have to live with my parents and that I'd have no choice but to rely on my mum to look after me. Life wasn't much fun and at times I didn't see any point in the future.

Today, I have the assistance I need that allows me to live in my own home, to have friends, a partner and a career as a comedian. In other words, I have a life I could never have imagined back then.

How? I was lucky enough to get support, advice and information from other disabled people who've been in my situation, who showed me that there was another way and who taught me how to get what I need to live my life.

I know you've received only some of what you need in terms of access and assistance, and this has been hard won. Don't you think it's maddening that so many disabled people remain isolated, uninformed and unsupported in negotiating the confusing world of welfare, health care, social services, legislation, assessments and adaptations.

Scared of illness

Maybe that's why assisted suicide seems to be increasingly seen as an option by disabled people, not just those who are terminally ill.

Daniel James
Paralysed in a rugby accident, Daniel James, 23, died in September at Dignitas

Worn down, feeling like a burden and with their needs unmet, it's perhaps understandable why people like yourself might choose death. But surely before we even consider assisting people to die, we need to assist them to live.

One of the main problems I have with assisted suicide stories like yours, Noel, is that the media perpetuates the idea that to be disabled or ill must be the greatest tragedy of all. Disability inevitability equals no quality of life.

I know when people read your story, many will agree that yes, if they were in your situation then they would want to die too. Most people are so scared of illness, of disability, of getting older, that wanting assisted suicide is seen as an entirely rational desire. What scares me is that views like these will also be held by the doctors, the media, the courts, the government and all the others who have the power to decide if we live or die.

I'm sure by now you know how I feel about assisted suicide. Until the day when good quality health and social care are universally available regardless of age, impairment, race, gender or location, I believe there is no place for legalised assisted suicide.

I just think it's too easy for a society to promote assisted suicide as a right rather than work to overcome the barriers to supporting older, ill and disabled people to live fulfilled and valuable lives. Forget the right to die, isn't it more urgent that we campaign for the right not to be killed?

We may have differing perspectives on this debate but I think what we share is our respect for each other. Thank you for sharing your story with me and for letting me into your life. I hope your one-way ticket to Switzerland is an open one so we can continue this discussion over the coming years.

Until next time,



Washing Noel Martin's hair

Below is a selection of your comments:

Thank you for publishing this letter. It has completely changed my view on assisted suicide and I am in complete agreement Liz Carr. It is so true that the media 'perpetuates the idea that to be disabled or ill must be the greatest tragedy of all'. I must confess this is the view that I held and I am very glad that I have read this letter. We need to make our society one that assists those who are disabled and helps them not to feel like a burden.
Miss H Brown, Cornwall

Clearly Liz and Noel have differing views but it seems Liz misses a few points. Noel isn't paralyzed as a result of an accident - he was brutally attacked and left in this condition (far different from becoming paralyzed as a youth due to illness). Liz is mobile, Noel is not. Most egregious is Liz's statement that we campaign for the right not be killed. This is about the individual's right to choose death, whether it's rejecting a new heart or choosing suicide. The fact that Noel needs someone to help him carry out his suicide does not imply the government or anyone else is coming to "kill" him because he doesn't fit in with societal norms. Actually, life is about making choices, good or bad. And although death is quite obviously one of those choices for which there is no going back, we all deserve the right to make that decision for ourselves.
Lisa, Minneapolis, MN USA

I think this "journalism", using the term loosely, is absolutely disgraceful. What exactly is an open letter? Oh yes, it's a way to write personal comments and publish them to the whole world! Astonishing that some journalist who's met the guy for half an hour feels she can stick her nose in to his most personal feelings.
Phil Metcalfe, Eastbourne

I just wanted to say what an amazing letter Liz has written. For me as someone who currently doesn't need the sort of care they both have, I feel humbled by people such as Liz and Noel who have both touched and influenced so many people with their words. It is so inspirational to hear from them both and gives me immense hope that despite the doom and gloom so often talked about now and the atrocities that still go on in the world, that there are some incredible people alive who can teach the rest of us so much. On the issue that sparked Liz's letter, I agree with her, but who am I to comment on Noel's decision. It's very much for him to make and things must be very difficult for him to have reached this decision. I hope Noel realises the huge benefit his words are to the rest of us and how his continuing to live enriches us all. I hope he changes his mind and in doing so, continues to encourage a change in attitudes and that we do what we can to improve the quality of his life as he has enriched ours.Gordon, Stokesley, UK

What Liz said is so right. I have a chronic neurological condition myself and the last thing I want to do is die. I want to live! The problem is that society is absolutely terrified of disability and chronic illness. They shouldn't be. We are just as valid members of society as any of the "so called" able bodied, whose minds' are disfigured by fear, prejudice and ignorance of chronic illness and disability. This has got to stop. Once and for all! Society needs to see us as equals not second class. We as a society need to overcome the obstacles (both physical and metaphysical) to have a truly equal and integrated society. We all need equal and first class health and social care. Not left to one side. If we all work together we can overcome all these obstacles, to have a truly compassionate and caring society. For all.
Sarah Feehan , Liverpool

The right at stake isn't the right to die or the right not to be killed per se, it's the far more fundamental and overarching right to make decisions about one's own body for oneself, with no pressure from either side of the debate. Those who choose assisted suicide do so with great courage, and such decisions should not be belittled by implying that they have only been made due to impared judgement, or because those who choose this route are scared or depressed.
Martha Hampson, London

I have MS. While I am not presently severely affected, the possibility of future disability concerns me. I am so saddened by stories like this about people so affected by their disability that they seek to end their lives. I cannot presume to judge their circumstances, but I do wonder -- do they know how close medicine is to curing or improving their conditions? I can only hope that they have looked at all the potential options before seeking the one irrevocable choice that ends all possibility.
Kristin Julier, Newington, Kent=

I read Liz Carr's appeal to Noel Martin with mounting irritation and despair. Mr. Martin has an absolute right to make profound decisions about his own life, and Ms. Carr should respect that. I don't doubt that she is a positive role model for disabled people, but this does not entitle her to tell anybody - regardless of their circumstances - that she knows better than they do what is best for them. Patronising and intolerant attitudes like Ms. Carr's undermine the cause of disabled people, reinforcing widely held prejudices and perpetuating stereotypes. The dramatic change in Mr. Martin's life and his present condition does not prevent him from taking rational, informed decisions like any other disabled or non-disabled person. Ms. Carr should try to understand that.
Matt, London

Liz, You really are an inspirational person. I don't want you to die, or for anyone else like you to die. But there has to be a legal way of compassionately killing people for whom there is absolutely no hope, those who have exhausted all possible means of living a life where the benefits outweigh the suffering. Please do not condemn such people to a life of constant torture. Kind regards, Joanna
Joanna, Edinburgh

I wholeheartedly agree with the concerns Liz has expressed so well. Death may seem like the only way out when your needs and desires are not being met. Instead it is essential that our society realises that people with disabilities and age-related impairments can have wonderful quality of life, if only they are respected and supported.
Rachel, Leeds, UK

Noel Martin is clearly an intelligent and sensitive man. It is absolutely outrageous that he was attacked and left paralyzed, and tragic that he wants to die. But he is a grown-up and we really should take him seriously; I'm sure he has given this a lot of thought. If his disability was even slightly reduced, he could take his own life without anyone stopping him. There is only a fuss because he requires help from other people for just about everything. In his situation I would probably choose to die too; but more than this, I would want to be given the same level of respect that I enjoyed as an able-bodied person. And, of course, he can change his mind at any time - just like the rest of us.
Nullius, London

Liz, thank you for your wonderful words of encouragement and support. It is becoming so prevalent in today's society to wipe away the unwanted babies, sick and elderly people that we are becoming desensitized to the legalized killing of humans. I hope Noel and others in the same situation are sufficiently touched by your letter and persuaded to carry on living, and to demand a dignified life rather than death.
Mrs R, Surrey, UK

Dear Liz, Put quite simply, it is not for you to judge what other people should do with their lives. That is the crux of the debate. Leave others to make their own decisions, no matter how painful because it is fundamentally none of your business.
Rufus Herring, Exeter

This story is very touching and I think highlights something far more important than others allowing or denying people the right to die. It highlights the true issue of lack of support for those who are disabled. Not just physical support but the support of changing your life and finding new talents and new ways of looking at life. It is our attitudes that need changing. We need to change our attitudes in order to help those people who suddenly find themselves in situations like this. We have to help them to find ways to incorporate their passions into disabled life and help them to stop focusing on what they have lost.
Jenny, Stevenage

I feel deeply for Noel. The change in our lives when we *become* disabled - as opposed to growing up with disability - is profound. It feels like a bereavement; it is longstanding and it is tough to take. Liz is right, though, that you can find a new living reality beyond disability. You don't have to love it, you can even despise it, but you can accommodate it and lead a worthwhile life. Noel, my thoughts are with you - it is a terrible decision to take, but please choose hope.
Mark, Reading, UK

If you can live with your disability then that's great for you, but don't take away the choice for others who can't and who find waking up each day a living hell.
Eric Blair, Brighton

Well done. At last someone who speaks the truth and has put GB, the media and many doctors firmly back where they belong - in the light. Dignitas is not! Living is.
Jeremy H, Surrey

thank you, Liz, for expressing so eloquently how I feel about assisted suicide. I hope many, especially Noel and his family, are helped and encouraged by your words.
helena kirk, halesowen uk

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