Killing the Disabled
by Tara Zoe Roshe (pen name), republished with permission from her Medium blog
I am a disabled woman with rheumatoid arthritis, a disease that attacks the joints. I use a walker or a wheelchair in my daily life but was able-bodied a short 10 years ago. Over the past few years, my physical condition has gotten progressively worse.
Assisted suicide has become legal in many parts of the United States. This makes me worry about where the medical field is heading.
Legalized assisted suicide and killing the disabled
My home state of New Jersey has legalized assisted suicide. The law is limited, but as we know, over time, the government tends to expand the rules about who qualifies for assisted suicide.
Canada has a law providing the option of euthanasia to those with terminal illnesses. Over 78% of euthanasia victims gave “loss of ability” as their reason for wanting to die. The 2019 report on Canadian euthanasia supports my statement that the loss of physical ability to do things, not pain or other symptoms, was the most common reason cited.
Under the law, a disabled person wanting to die only has to go through an approval process and request that a doctor kill them.
Now, a bill has been put forward in Canada, which will, if passed, make it even easier. Doctors would be allowed to perform euthanasia on disabled or chronically ill people upon request.
The only requirement is that the illness or disability be progressive. Under the bill, if I lived in Canada, I would be eligible to be killed by a doctor upon my request.
In the Netherlands, assisted suicide was first legalized for only the terminally ill, but it is now legal for those with disabilities and mental illnesses who are physically healthy. For example, this 29-year old who suffered from depression just died by assisted suicide.
Is the United States going to travel down the same road as Canada and the Netherlands? Will assisted suicide be legalized for those with disabilities in the future?
Disabled people sometimes seek mental health care for depression or other mental illnesses. How will the legalization of assisted suicide affect this mental health care? How will doctors’ willingness to help end lives that they assume are “not worth living” affect the way they care for disabled people?
Doctors and the value of disabled peoples’ lives
We already know that many doctors don’t see the value of disabled people’s lives. This is evident in how disabled people with COVID were denied care in Oregon, with some dying as a result.
In hospitals in Oregon, disabled people were denied respirators. They were refused admission to intensive care units. They were pressured into signing DNR (do not resuscitate) orders, even when they were cognitively disabled and didn’t understand what the forms meant.
One disabled woman died of COVID after the hospital refused to treat her, even though she had a legal directive saying that she wanted to receive intensive care. Her caregiver tried to intervene, but the hospital still refused to treat the woman. And she died.
Caregivers brought a paralyzed man to the hospital, only to have hospital workers say (in front of him) that they didn’t want to waste a COVID test on him. They wanted the caregivers to take him home to die. The doctors told the caregivers that the man had no “quality of life.”
The caregivers successfully got the hospital to admit the man, but the hospital discharged him with orders to his nursing home to stop feeding him and to let him starve to death. Fortunately, the workers at the nursing home ignored this order.
Why do doctors see such little value in disabled peoples’ lives? Author, researcher, and doctor John Wyatt wrote in his book Matters of Life & Death: Human Dilemmas in the Light of the Christian Faith that most doctors:
have little first-hand experience of the lives of children and adults with disability. Hence, their understanding of the lives of disabled people is mainly drawn from the medical literature, especially standard medical textbooks.
There is a strong tendency for health professionals to list and emphasize the precise medical and functional impairments associated with a particular diagnosis, without counterbalancing emphasis on the abilities and positive features of the lives of people with the condition…
There is accumulating evidence that health professionals consistently undervalue the quality of life of the disabled . . ..compared with parents and with the individuals themselves.
Wyatt cites a study that backs up his claims.
Legalized assisted suicide only reinforces doctors’ beliefs that disabled people have lives that aren’t worth living.
What type of medical care will I get?
RA is a progressive disease, and I wonder what type of health care I will receive as I get older and become more severely disabled.
RA can, in fact, become terminal if it attacks the heart or other organs. I wonder if I will ever be pressured to accept assisted suicide. Even more so, I wonder whether I will get the same suicide prevention services as an able-bodied person if I need them.
A disabled person is given suicide advice, not suicide prevention
Recently in New Zealand, there was a case where a young woman named Claire Freeman, who was wheelchair-bound and in chronic pain, in a similar situation as mine, attempted suicide. She went into a mental hospital. She told the psychologist who was assigned to her that she wanted to die.
Instead of treating Freeman’s depression and counseling her against suicide, the doctor suggested she travel to Switzerland to a suicide clinic and kill herself there.
Every able-bodied patient in that hospital was being told not to kill themselves and receiving therapy and medication to treat their suicidal feelings. But a person in a wheelchair was encouraged, by her own doctor, to kill herself.
I realized that a lot of the advice I had been given, like from the psychologist and from a psychiatrist who saw me after an earlier suicide attempt, was because they were looking at me and just seeing the disability.
“They were not saying, ‘Hey, what’s going on in your life? Are you working too much? Are you in too much pain?’
None of those questions were asked, it was just, ‘Of course she wants to die, she’s in a wheelchair, she’s in pain.’
Freeman changed her mind about suicide and is now glad to be alive.
My own struggles with suicide
Due to my bipolar disorder, I have sometimes struggled with suicidal feelings. In my 20s, I spent time in a mental hospital. I was young and physically able-bodied then. I didn’t develop RA until I was in my 30s.
The doctors were determined to prevent my suicide and worked with me to overcome those thoughts and feelings. I can’t help but wonder if I ever need to go into the hospital again, will I be treated the same way now that I am in a wheelchair?
Maybe I would today, but what about 10 years from now, when my disability is even more severe? What about 20 years from now?
Now, if someone is actively suicidal, they can be placed in a mental hospital, even against their will, and given treatment. A person can also voluntarily seek treatment for suicidal feelings.
If I seek treatment in the future, will doctors encourage me to live or help me die?
The existence of euthanasia and assisted suicide makes my struggles harder.
Every time I read a story about a disabled person who was euthanized in another country, it hurts me on a personal level. It makes me angry that people didn’t see the value in their life.
It makes me afraid that others won’t see the value of mine.
Sometimes it makes me wonder if my life really does have value. If so many people believe that a person like me isn’t worth keeping alive, maybe I’m not.
The sanction given to disabled people’s suicides confirms my deepest fears- that I’m not valuable or important, that I’m not worthy of life. Resisting these dark feelings can be hard when I’m in the depths of depression.
Depression lies to you.
It distorts your thinking. It tells you you aren’t deserving of help or love. It tells you, you are worthless. It tells you no one cares.
The existence of assisted suicide reinforces these lies.
When I’m already struggling with suicidal feelings and consider killing myself through assisted suicide, it feels like society has given me permission to do so. It sends the message that suicide is a reasonable answer to my depression, physical condition, and pain.
This makes my suicidal feelings stronger.
Assisted suicide affects disabled people just by being available to other disabled people.
I am now a disability rights activist in the fight against euthanasia and assisted suicide. Not Dead Yet is an organization of disabled people that sees the threat inherent in legalizing assisted suicide.
I found supportive people when I became involved in the pro-life movement. Specifically, the wing that holds to the consistent life ethic.
The consistent life ethic is a philosophy that all human life is valuable, and that killing, unless (some woul add) in extreme cases of self-defense, is always wrong. Those who adhere to this ethic oppose war, the death penalty, euthanasia, and abortion.
Any threat to human life is something to oppose.
The people I’ve met through my activism value the lives of disabled people. They value my life. I’ve made the best friends I’ve ever had among my fellow activists. They are (peaceful) warriors who fight alongside me against the ethic that devalues lives like mine.
I am grateful to have found a community of friends who value all lives, even disabled ones, and grateful that so many people are with me when I speak up for the value of my life and other disabled people’s.
We deserve suicide prevention, not suicide assistance.
We deserve to be treated the same way as able-bodied people by the medical community.
We need to continue advocating for ourselves and others.
For more of our posts on this topic, see:
Figuring out Euthanasia: What Does it Really Mean?