My last post on Stephen Dawson outlined insights about euthanasia I have gained from over 30 years as a disability advocate. Those reflections were triggered by the Dying with Dignity hearings which began in Quebec just after Labour Day. These issues are never far from the surface in the rest of Canada, the US, UK or elsewhere.
Since the rights of the individual to 'die with dignity' is invoked to justify legalizing physician assisted suicide I want to focus on the rights of a whole class of people - people with disabilities.
People with disabilities, some of whom may have intellectual disabilities, are not stupid. They understand the implications of 'dying with dignity' discussions. They know their right to life is threatened. They see themselves caught up in the vacuum cleaner that will be created if physician assisted suicide is sanctioned. They see themselves described in such terms as mercy killing, degenerating quality of life, unbearable burden, vegetable, extraordinary measures. They take this personally. Very personally.A disability organization I admire is Not Dead Yet . They call a 'spade a spade' and oppose legalizing assisted suicide
The philosopher who worries them the most is Princeton's Peter Singer who believes certain groups of people with disabilities (and he specifically references people with intellectual disabilities) are at best second class citizens; at worst non-persons and do not deserve civil rights protection, including the right to life. Singer joins the ranks of those who claim that "we" cannot bear the economic burden of treating people with significant cognitive disabilities as full members of society.
There was a classic debate at Princeton between Singer and Harriet McBryde Johnson a distinguished lawyer, disability rights activist and member of Not Dead Yet. Johnson, who is pictured above subsequently wrote about this debate in a cover story for the New York Times magazine. Have a look . It is spell binding especially since Singer believes Johnson's parents and other parents in similar circumstances, should have the right to 'kill the baby I once was'.
There are many ethical considerations to consider in this charged debate. One which is imperative for dying with dignity proponents to reconcile is: Why does the individual 'right to die' trump the universal rights of a whole class of people to live. Euthanasia advocates use the language of individual rights as a subtle tool to denigrate, threaten and potentially kill people labeled disabled. They are a particular masquerading as a universal.
People with disabilities offer two critical insights:
1) they see behind the rhetoric and euphemisms. They are not fooled. These phrase are thin disguises. They are afraid they will be caught up in the dying with dignity net should society legalize assisted suicide or euthanasia. They also recognize other vulnerable groups are equally threatened: older people, particularly those who are frail; people with mental illness; people with HIV-AIDS...
I recall during the Stephen Dawson court case running into a woman with disabilities with tears in her eyes. She was threatened by the language and tone of the media coverage about Stephen. She believed they were talking about her.
2) many people with disabilities understand the human capacity for adaptation to extreme changes to our health. What we/they couldn't imagine enduring quickly changes when our world tilts. The life force is strong in all of us. As a friend said recently. 'Sure, I would still like to feel the beach sand beneath my toes but that doesn't mean I don't have a good life as a person with a spinal cord injury.'
1) Harriet Johnson sadly passed away in 2008.
2) This is part of a continuing series on euthanasia and physician assisted suicide offered as an accompaniment to Quebec's Dying with dignity hearings. Click the Ethics category on the right to access the others.