by Lateef H. McLeod
Recently there has been a resurgence of debate of whether or not euthanasia is a viable ethical option for people with disabilities. Proponents of euthanasia stress that since all Americans have the right to life and have the authority of how to end it. They argue that it is better to end their life now instead of waiting until they need palliative care. They also argue that an early death will avoid their family and loved ones from having to pay expensive medical costs to take care of them. This self-centered line of argument goes well with the American value of being self-reliant and the abhorrence of being a burden to taken care of by others. It continues to reinforce the dominant stereotype that a non-able bodied life is not worth living.
There are many reasons why this euthanasia debate is ableist in nature. The California Foundation For Independent Living Centers delve into some of the reasons on their website. They state that euthanasia statutes are aimed at eliminating the bureaucratic red tape that prevents terminal ill patients from ending their lives and will also make it easier for people with non-terminal disabilities to argue conditions where they would be justified in taking to take their lives. This type of argument should be avoided at all costs. It promotes the narrative that some disabilities are too difficult to live with and people thus impaired should have suicide as an option at their disposal. This type of argument is insulting and demeaning to people with those disabilities who decide it is better to live with their condition.
This narrative has drastic negative consequences. We just have to look at the case of George Hodgins, a young man with autism who was fatally shot by his mother, Elizabeth Hodgins, who then committed suicide. Besides the story being tragic, it provides the example of how the euthanasia narrative leads this mother to do this heinous deed. She most likely thought that the responsibility of taking care of her son sat squarely on her shoulders and did not ask or take the offered support of family, friends, and community members. Too often disability is seen in our culture as a personal issue or something that the intermediate family has to deal with.
The devaluing of the lives people with disabilities that euthanasia debate proposes has wider consequences in society. A person with disabilities could be deemed expendable where an able-bodied person would not be. This is evident in the case of Stephon Watts, a fifteen-year-old boy with autism who the police shot to death in front of his home. As in many other instances, the police thought they had a right to murder Stephon even though he only had a butter knife and could not begin to be a threat to the police officers present. The police reaction to the situation illustrates the disregard for life, as they could not resolve the confrontation without murdering the boy. No doubt if Stephon was able-bodied or even a lighter hue, more effort from the police would be given to more peacefully resolve the situation. The history of devaluing people with disabilities influenced by the euthanasia debate gave the police license to use the lethal force they deemed necessary to quell a minor domestic dispute. The lack of amount of coverage this story received from community groups or from the news media even after the national uproar over the tragedy of the similar Trayvon Martin case exemplifies people’s reluctance to validate and protest when people with disabilities are murdered unjustly by individuals or by the state.
Euthanasia is used in this culture as an argument for not identifying or accommodating for the lives and struggles of people with disabilities. Society already dismisses people with disabilities as being either the heroic person who achieved to great heights in despite of his or her challenges, the helpless person whose disability causes them to be a drain on society, or the expendable exemplified by the euthanasia debate that basically argues that people with disabilities are better off dead than alive. We in the disability community need to change this narrative and keep illustrating that our diverse and complex lives are worth living.