Monday, October 28, 2019

Marieke Vervoort: an athlete’s influence used for harm?

This article was published by the disability rights group Toujours Vivant - Not Dead Yet on October 28.

Taylor Hyatt
By Taylor Hyatt 
Policy Analyst & Outreach Coordinator,
Toujours Vivant-Not Dead Yet

After the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Belgian wheelchair sprinter Marieke Vervoort made two startling announcements. First, she was retiring; the Rio Paralympics would be her last sporting event. Second, she was considering euthanasia due to the progression of her neuromuscular condition.

Ms. Vervoort was an accomplished athlete. She won the gold medal in the 100-metre, and silver in the 200-metre sprints at the 2012 London Games, as well as the silver medal in the 400m and bronze in the 100m in Rio. Until that point, sport had given her “a reason to keep living.” Sadly, Ms. Vervoort has followed through with her plan; according to a statement posted on the website of her hometown of Diest, she was euthanized on October 22.

Since her desire to die became public knowledge, Ms. Vervoort made many public statements in favour of euthanasia. She told CNN that she “regained control” of her life when she was approved for the procedure in 2008. She considered euthanasia to be “going to sleep … something peaceful” and a way out of unbearable suffering. Ms. Vervoort enjoyed the feeling of “rest” that her “papers” gave her, and was relieved that she did not have to end her life in a more traditional, painful way.

Ms. Vervoort lived with severe pain and a lack of sleep because of her disability. She did not have support to manage these aspects of her condition. This raises questions, such as:

  • What palliative care measures did Ms. Vervoort receive to help manage her changing condition? We already know that palliative care is often unavailable and underfunded. As well, most doctors don’t know about advanced pain management techniques.
  • Was she supported by a peer counselor as she grappled with the drastic changes associated with retirement and a progressive condition? The “better dead than disabled” message was probably harder to counter because her identity had been tied to sports for so long. After devoting so much time to her career, the question “Who is Marieke Vervoort, if not an athlete?” would prove difficult to answer. However, like all of us, Ms. Vervoort’s worth is not tied to her supposed usefulness in a particular domain. Human beings are not cartons of milk – they do not have a “best before” date! Nor would retirement take away from her accomplishments.
  • Did anyone one match her interest in death with encouragement to live, or present her with other options?
  • If Vervoort was immersed in pro-suicide messages, did she eventually feel like she had no choice but to act on them?
Ms. Vervoort made her suicide a public matter. She used her influence to convince others that ending one’s life is an acceptable response to difficult circumstances. I imagine a young admirer of Ms. Vervoort hearing her say that death is both a valid and accessible way to cope with distress, and it breaks my heart. I’ve never been particularly interested in sports, but I have been let down by a famous person I looked up to.

Steven Fletcher and Taylor Hyatt
By high school, politics – and the underlying ethical debates – had become my passion. A teacher noticed my growing interest and pointed out that MP Steven Fletcher, a disabled man, served in the House of Commons. Mr. Fletcher and I eventually met – not on a class tour of Parliament, as I had initially hoped, but on opposite sides of the euthanasia debate in the Supreme Court. Thankfully, I was well into my university studies at that time. Although I was disappointed, I was well aware of the risks of putting famous people on pedestals.

Public figures are human and fallible, and sometimes don’t live up to our expectations. On the other hand, these same figures must remember that many people, especially youth, look to them as examples. Combined with the lack of role models for disabled people to identify with, and the effects of suicide contagion, one woman’s untimely death could have a disturbing ripple effect.

May Marieke Vervoort rest in peace. I hope all who failed her by allowing her wish for death to go unchallenged have a change of heart. If not, more young fans could be motivated to follow in her footsteps, and more lives could be lost.

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