Recent events in Canada have revived the issue of assisted suicide, or euthanasia, in New Zealand. Disabled people in Canada and Australia have expressed dismay about a situation they see as a threat to the lives of disabled people.
The Alberta Association for Community living chief executive Bruce Uditsky said “The Court’s decision is the most permissive approach to assisted suicide in the world. Rather than require people to have a terminal illness, people with disabilities simply have to express their life is not worth living.” And there’s the rub.
We know that many disabled people in New Zealand experience violence and abuse without access to redress. Many of us are chronically depressed because of the accumulated effects of the hardship and everyday discrimination we live with. People who murder their disabled family members often receive lesser sentences in court than other murderers.
I have heard disabled people recount the experience of random strangers saying to them “If I were like you/in a wheelchair/blind etc I would want to die.” That may be so, the idea of disability as “a fate worse than death” smoulders in the collective imagination, stoked by popular media portrayals of “tragic” disabled lives. Certainly disabled people are among the poorest and most disadvantaged in our society. But many of us don’t see our lives as tragic suffering. In confronting all of the above we generally manage to remain philosophical and resilient.
Disabled people do feel that our lives are considered by society as being of lesser value than those of non-disabled people. Many of us are already faced with coercion in daily life “choices” such as where and with whom to live, access to our communities, education, work etc. Some have had their choices constrained to the point where they have discovered Do Not Resuscitate directives on their medical files, placed there without their consent.
It is not surprising then, that disabled people are nervous about assisted suicide. We might not feel so insecure if we lived in a more equal society, where disability was a fact of life rather than a fate worse than death.
Nor would we feel this way if we are accorded equal respect in the debate. Intimidation into silence is not helpful. Others cannot speak for us. Sadly they frequently do.
Some disabled people support assisted suicide. They believe that it is their individual right to exercise an ultimate act of control over their own bodies and lives, a reasonable point of view. But some other disabled people are not in a position to exercise such control. There is also room for mistakes, misuse and manipulation. Additionally, assisted suicide represents the worrying re-medicalisation of disability, which we have fought long and hard to change.
I suspect most of us would prefer to talk about a good life rather than a good death. There is unease that state assisted death would encourage disabled people to end their lives, especially those who have high and complex, (expensive) medical needs.
It is worth noting that New Zealand has ratified the UN Convention on the rights of Disabled People, (CRPD,) where Article ten establishes the right to life on an equal basis with others. There is no mention of a right to be assisted to die. The Convention is concerned with respect and dignity, however a dignified death does not have to equate with assisted suicide.
Baroness Campbell, herself a person who lives with significant, sometimes life-threatening impairment, said of the Assisted Dying Bill recently before the House of Lords in the UK. “It is a Bill for the strong at the expense of the weak.”
I think that she is right and her words apply to the whole debate.