Coronation Street 'misleading' viewers on euthanasia

A general view of the Coronation Street set(PA)

Charges of "normalising" and "glamorising" euthanasia have been levelled against Coronation Street over its euthanasia plotline.

Yesterday's episode, which depicted the suicide of Hayley Cropper, a transgendered character who was suffering from pancreatic cancer, has been described as "social propaganda" by the charity Christian Concern.

The advocacy group's fundamental objection is that the storyline perpetuates the idea that some people's lives are not worth living.

Christian Concern called this "profoundly discriminatory and demeaning", and raised concerns about people with disabilities having judgments made about the quality of their lives.

The group argues that the soap's plot reinforces the myth that the terminally ill often want to commit suicide, and that illness and disability is a significant cause of suicidal feelings.

"Suicidal thinking is far more likely related to feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, rather than physical symptoms" it said.

"Very few requests for assisted suicide are made when the psychological and physical needs of patients are met through high quality care and treatment."

Other inaccuracies include the idea that pain caused by cancer cannot be controlled, and that medication and other cancer treatments will cause confusion and distress.

In the case of Hayley Cropper, the character was concerned the medication would cause her to revert to her male identity, Harold.

Christian Concern said: "Evidence shows that in the hands of palliative care experts, pain can be managed and controlled ...patients are able to tolerate increased medication whilst remaining alert."

'Copycat suicides' were also a concern for the group, as it pointed to the World Health Organisation's conclusions - drawn from over 50 investigations into imitative suicides - that media reporting of suicide "can lead to imitative suicidal behaviours".

Alistair Thompson, of Care Not Killing, was quoted in the Guardian as saying: "The danger is that tragic stories such as Hayley's that gain widespread publicity can normalise suicide and spark a spate of copycat deaths from people in a similar plight."

But the actress who plays Hayley Cropper, Julie Hesmondhalgh rejects the idea.

"The idea that it will promote copycat suicides p***** me off more than anything," she said in the Guardian. "Hundreds of murders are shown every day on TV and nobody's saying that normalises murder.

"But this story – that has been seeded for months and everybody knows is going to happen – is supposed to make people in Hayley's condition commit suicide?

"Rubbish! Nobody's going to be tuning in on Monday night to copy her. It's insulting to those who are in Hayley's predicament to say otherwise."

The Samaritans were consulted in the writing of these episodes.

Speaking in the Guardian, its director of fundraising and communications, Rachel Kirby-Rider said: "Our role was to help them to cover this as safely as possible, not to approve their decision to run the story at all."

Consequently, certain editorial decisions were made such as not specifying which drugs Hayley uses to kill herself, and to show Hayley choking as she dies.

"It was important we didn't sentimentalise suicide," said Ms Hesmondhalgh.

Mr Thompson argues that Coronation Street should have moved the story's direction, and depicted access to good palliative care.

"They should have focused on the amazing work done in hospices and hospital wards across the country," he said.

Christian Concern said: "More than 7,000 people die from pancreatic cancer every year in England and Wales and they are asking for care not killing, for a system that will protect them not kill them."

Assisting a suicide is currently a crime in the UK punishable by up to 14 years in prison. But guidelines say that if the assistance was provided by friends and family out of compassion rather than for personal gain, a prosecution is unlikely to proceed.

In 2011, a poll from the disability charity Scope found that 70% of disabled people opposed new euthanasia laws, and 56% thought euthanasia laws would damage social perceptions of the disabled.

Richard Hawkes, Chief Executive of Scope, said at the time that "while high-profile lawyers, doctors and celebrities... grab the headlines, the views of the thousands of ordinary disabled people who could be affected by this issue are rarely listened to".

"Disabled people are already worried about people assuming their life isn't worth living or seeing them as a burden, and are genuinely concerned that a change in the law could increase pressure on them to end their life," he said.