Monday, July 23, 2012

The assisted suicide slope is slick for vulnerable people

This is the original version of the article by Rhonda Wiebe that was printed in the Winnipeg Free Press on July 21, 2012, under a different title. I have used the original title Rhonda Wiebe had chosen for this article.

Rhonda Wiebe
By Rhonda Wiebe, co-Chair of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities - ending of life ethics committee.

Arthur Schafer’s portrayal of comments on the merits of physician assisted suicide need challenging. Schafer, like many other supporters of physician assisted suicide (also known as “doctor prescribed death”) does not seem to have considered the wider issues facing Canadians with disabilities, including  the ongoing social prejudice and discouraging lack of living supports that we encounter on a daily basis.

The recent decision in the British Columbia Supreme Court regarding the constitutional right of Gloria Taylor, a British Columbia ALS patient, to end her own life rather than live with disability only confirms what we with disabilities already know – that many Canadians believe it is better to be dead than disabled. What also became clear in the decision is that the judge believes it is better to be dead than disabled. The judgment was pronounced without considering the message it sends to all of us who believe that despite profound functional limitations, we want to live.

Gloria Taylor and others who are newly disabled face loss. All of a sudden you can’t do what you could easily do before. Every day you face renegotiating the world around you in new and frightening ways. No one wants it, but that’s what has to be done if you want to live a vibrant and meaningful life.

Let’s look at another very significant loss – that of the death of a child. The pain, I am told, is absolutely devastating. Every day you are reminded of what you once had that is now gone. Everywhere you turn, you have to reconfigure how you approach things, and you are constantly faced with ways of bracing yourself against this insurmountable absence of what you once had.

But when a parent loses a child, do the majority of Canadians chime in and say, “Your pain must be so horrible. You have no quality of life. Here’s a syringe – why don’t you end it all? Better yet, here’s a doctor ready to write you a deadly prescription?” If you find this notion offensive, then you know how disturbing it is for people with disabilities to hear from persons who haven’t yet adjusted to the losses inherent in acquiring a disability, or to hear from able bodied “experts” that we should have the right to end our own lives. There is no apparent discussion, either in the Taylor decision, or amongst persons such as Schafer that acknowledges the problems might lie in our lack of supports to go on living. Instead, they just want to make possibilities for us killing ourselves that much smoother.

Their argument, of course, is disguised as one of self-autonomy. They want to make sure that we have the right to commit suicide. But do you work hard to ensure that same right to grieving parents, heartbroken adolescents, or anyone else facing devastating social circumstances? It is incomprehensive that suicide prevention organizations are not more pro-active when people with disabilities feel their only option is to kill themselves.

Let’s look at another issue – pain management. If you read the Taylor case in BC, you’ll see that it actually has very little to do with physical pain. This fact is consistent with data about who is asking (and receiving) physician assisted suicide. Jack Kevorkian killed far more people with newly diagnosed disability than he did those with terminal illness and unremitting pain. Gloria Taylor’s submission didn’t talk about unretractable pain, but it did spend a lot of time describing how she was worried about not being able to go to the bathroom by herself. I know a lot of vibrant, exemplary citizens who need assistance with incontinence issues. There are products for that. But if someone is really so ashamed of needing this kind of help, able-bodied Canadians have some pretty tough questions they better face about how they judge the merits and worth of other human beings based on the fact that their bodies have leaky places.

The insidious bottom line is this – last I looked, a take-home euthanasia kit in Oregon cost $39.95. That’s a whole lot less expensive than providing someone with the supports they need to cope with the loss of having a disability, and then providing them with the means to get on with the matters of daily living. It’s way cheaper to let people suffer, or cut back services so that life is untenable, or subtly convince people with disabilities that they have lives that aren’t worth living. Imagine being inundated with the message that you have a right to end your miserable, burdensome, devalued life, because really, it’s your choice.

Unfortunately, some people with disabilities are starting to drink that Kool-Aid. 

I know of what I speak. I live with an incurable medical condition that already diminishes my capacity to live, work and play. My future holds a certainty of further losses, but the hardest thing to face is the tacit agreement on the part of ableist Canadians that the lives of people with disabilities are pitiable, disempowered, and, in the end, not worth supporting.

The slope to euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide isn’t just slippery, it’s growing slicker because Canadians aren’t willing to carefully examine their own attitudes towards living with disability, and because, like much else, we’re hurtling into a human rights-devoid world where we do the cheap thing, not the right thing.

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