What’s Missing in All the Able-ist Rhetoric
Around “Death with Dignity”
by Dr. Heidi Janz
Like many Canadians with disabilities, I have been following the renewed national debate on legalizing assisted suicide and euthanasia with growing fear and trepidation. I am at the point where, to put it bluntly, I am sick and tired of hearing about how TABS (temporarily able-bodied people) and former TABS (hello Stephen Fletcher) want the “right” to die, lest they have to live with some of the limitations that I do. The (not so) implicit message is: People with disabilities have crappy lives, therefore, THEY *SHOULD* WANT TO DIE.
It’s true that I have some significant advantages that many disabled people don’t: I have a PhD; I live in my own home, and I direct my own care. It’s also true that I live with some limitations that many TABS would deem intolerable because of cerebral palsy — I’m bladder incontinent and eat via a g-tube. But my dignity/worth as a human being is neither defined by my advantages, nor diminished by my limitations. Rather, as a human being, my life has intrinsic dignity and worth. It is when my life is devalued by society as a “fate worse than death” that I am robbed of my rightful human dignity.
Then, there is the issue of suffering. No human being wants to suffer; yet, suffering is demonstrably an intrinsic part of human life from beginning to end. The question thus becomes: At what point does suffering become legitimate grounds for ending someone’s life? Should society be obligated to honour a request to die made by a newly-paralyzed 18-year-old who can’t yet conceive of the fact that it is possible for someone with a disability to have a life? Or, what about a request to die made by a Canadian soldier who returns from the battlefield with disabilities? Or, a request to die made by a middle-aged person with disabilities whose extensive care needs and lack of assisted-living options force them to go into a long-term care facility?
These are not merely hypothetical scenarios; rather, each of these situations are cases in which assisted suicide and euthanasia would be permissible under the Private Member’s Bill that MP Stephen Fletcher has put before Parliament, as the bill cites both physical and psychological suffering as legitimate grounds for assisted suicide and euthanasia. Mr. Fletcher and those who support the legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia argue that safeguards would be put in place to ensure that legalized assisted suicide and euthanasia are not misused and abused, resulting in people with disabilities being ‘assisted to die’ without their consent. But data from jurisdictions where euthanasia and assisted suicide have already been legalized, such as Belgium and the Netherlands, clearly indicate that such supposed safeguards simply do not work.
Like many Canadians with disabilities, I strongly feel that our energies as a nation would be much better spent creating increased access to assisted living and palliative care. To Mr. Fletcher, I respectfully ask: Why don’t you use your privileged position as a member of Parliament to seek to help your fellow Canadians with disabilities live better lives, from beginning to end, rather than seeking to enact legislation which will inevitably further devalue and endanger our lives?
Heidi Janz, PhD
John Dossetor Health Ethics Centre, University of Alberta