There’s a long history of disability rights opposition to assisted suicide, or what the proponents like to call “medical aid in dying” going back to the 1970s. In 2012 I presented research that I’d published on pro-eugenics messages about disabled people in film music at the Society of Disability Studies, and a keynote speaker said that even though he was an agnostic, he thought Dr. Kevorkian was probably in Hell. Everyone in the room cheered.
The disability rights movement has a history of opposing assisted suicide because we’re able to recognize it as a form of systemic violence against people in our community. We know that we live in a world of misdiagnosis, rationing and forced DNRS, and that adding physician assisted suicide to that mix is a really bad idea. The physician assisted suicide movement, which likes to pretend that the only people who oppose physician assisted suicide are religious nut jobs, has been frustrated by its inability to circumvent disability rights opposition to PAS.
The disability rights movement’s secular opposition to PAS has been a factor in preventing or stalling the adoption of assisted suicide in several states. Therefore, it makes sense that the assisted suicide movement would try to come up with a strategy to obscure, undermine, and pacify that opposition.
Physician Assisted Suicide
In May 2022, the statewide campaign director for the Death with Dignity National Center created a PowerPoint outlining the right to die movement’s strategy for undermining the disability rights movement’s opposition to physician assisted suicide. Among other things, the presentation encourages physician assisted suicide advocates to “consider cloaking;” right to die campaigners are encouraged to lie about who they are and spy on disability rights organizations.
Physician assisted suicide advocates are also encouraged to infiltrate disability rights organizations and work alongside disability justice advocates on other issues, to “work with them to address their concerns,” and therefore gain the trust of people in the disability justice community. “Death with dignity.” campaigners hope that by doing that, they can neutralize one of the most effective impediments to their agenda.
Because that effort is being made, I think it’s probably necessary to remind some members of the disabled community of the history of euthanasia, and the activities that many of its supporters have engaged in. Derek Humphrey, the founder of Compassion and Choices’ predecessor organization, asserted that social support for “medical aid in dying” would ultimately come about through social support for the cost savings involved. Humphrey wrote an approving blurb for Peter Singer’s 1993 book Rethinking Life and Death, in which Singer hatefully compares people with severe cognitive disabilities to chimpanzees and says that the lives of some people with disabilities should have the same value as a fetus or a dog.
Medical Aid in Dying
Nowadays, Thaddeus Mason Pope, an ardent physician assisted suicide advocate who appeared on Dr. Phil with the president of Compassion and Choices, has reportedly tweeted that the safeguards in the right to die legislation being passed today were “political tools,” that he thinks that the former president of Compassion and Choices, Barbara Coombs Lee, “always thought that personal liberty demanded wider access,” and that he wants to help disabled people kill themselves. And, over and over again he and his friends in the assisted suicide movement say that it’s good to kill yourself if you only have a few more expensive months to live or if you need help going to the bathroom. Hence, there really is no common ground to be had here.
Much of the right to die movement’s treacly prose actually constitutes hate speech, but sadly the people involved in that movement cannot understand that. Our ableist culture and their nigh-religious commitment to what they understand as autonomy has not allowed them to grasp that it’s hateful to tell disabled people to kill ourselves.
And, coming right behind the American proponents’ hate speech are hate crimes, like what’s being done to disabled people in Canada. Many American assisted suicide advocates deeply admire Canada’s system, and would like nothing more than to institute a policy of killing suicidal people with disabilities. We can observe this on Twitter, as American assisted suicide advocates warmly interact with their Canadian colleagues, host them at conferences, and blithely retweet tweets from their accounts. That being the case, I think that the disability rights movement needs to demand that our culture be more honest about what is being done via Canada’s “MAiD” program, and what expansion advocates in the USA are advocating for.
We are talking about shutting down disabled people’s lungs and lowering their bodies into graves, where the bodies will be eaten by worms. We are talking about the killing of members of a subjugated group because they are members of that group. That’s objectively ugly, no matter what the proponents intended to do.
Not a Medical Procedure
While I know that there are some otherwise good, sincerely misguided individuals who honestly
believe that limited PAS can coexist with disability rights, other, less sincere interlopers are hoping that
if they love bomb the disability justice community enough, then it won’t be long before we’re all sitting
around a campfire somewhere, singing Kum Bay Ya. And then they can go back to helping people with
disabilities kill themselves.
No! Opposition to assisted suicide is a matter of equal citizenship. There is no way for disability rights to meaningfully exist in a society that has turned disabled people’s suicides into a “medical procedure.” Even tolerating that suggestion is a very clear message to the disabled community that we are dirt.
So, disability justice advocates, make sure you consistently demand a better society than that. Loudly remind powerful people in our society that disabled people aren’t fetuses. We aren’t dogs. Refuse to collaborate with people who want disabled people to have the status of a fetus or a dog. If a new person walks into your disability justice space chattering about “autonomy,” and starts talking about how “beautiful” death by physician assisted suicide is, gently but firmly show them the door.
What are your thoughts on this topic? Let us know in the comments.
Bio: Meghan Schrader has a mild brain injury. She is an instructor at E4Texas program at the University of Texas in Austin. Meghan is training to become a support specialist for people with mental illnesses.
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