A Matter Of Life And Death: Beyond The Headlines Of Physician-Assisted Suicide


I have watched friends and colleagues involved with disability advocacy struggle with their responses to the 6 February 2015 Supreme Court of Canada ruling on assisted suicide. Watching most media coverage of this dramatic event one was left wondering “What was all the fuss?” because it was presented mainly as a celebration, and listeners and viewers were left wondering why there was any opposition to begin with.

Amy Hasbrouk was one of the few voices of concern featured in mainstream media coverage of the Supreme Court decision

Amy Hasbrouk was one of the few voices of concern featured in mainstream media coverage of the Supreme Court decision

The frustration is growing and I doubt that I can contribute much to supporting an improved understanding of the debate, but I certainly have to try.

I have observed, I believe quite objectively, that public understanding of the controversy is based largely on media reports that have focused almost exclusively on individuals (past or present) suffering from painful and advancing terminal illnesses, who were/are competent and capable (and sometimes charismatic) speakers able to present well-reasoned and sympathetic arguments for their right to die on their own terms.

I honestly have not arrived at my own opinion on that particular narrow circumstance. But what I do know is that the Supreme Court ruling was not specific to what I’ve described above. It is much broader and much more complicated than most people understand.

The court has struck down the universal protections we had in place, and we are now likely to see a multitude of court challenges that will apply to many other types of situations – such as an individual with a disability who is unable to easily communicate their own wishes.

We need to challenge ourselves to go beyond the headlines in thinking about physician-assisted death

We need to challenge ourselves to go beyond the headlines in thinking about physician-assisted death

Trying to understand the “slippery slope” that people with disabilities and advocates are worried about is really not that complicated – they don’t want to be killed (or others killed) because another person(s) or the state decides that their life is not worth living.

That this is a real danger is not in doubt. Anyone who is acquainted with the details of the murder of Tracy Latimer knows that media coverage and public understanding of the issues followed a similar pattern. There was a sympathetic focus on the suffering of Robert Latimer (and little attention to the facts of the case) and little consideration of the victim.

Why it played out that way requires confronting an ugly truth: due to her disabilities (including Cerebral Palsy, resulting complications, and non-traditional communication) Tracy’s life was seen to be of lesser value and thus her death was seen as a lesser crime. I listened to years and years of talk radio discussions about Latimer and time and time again, the theme came through loud and clear: “She was a vegetable and he compassionately put her out of her misery.”

If you don’t think there’s a connection, guess again. Robert Latimer himself has already made the connection with headlines that he is “pleased with the decision.” To me, this is chilling and frightening, and Canadians need to wake up to the threat. At the very least, they need to admit that they don’t really understand what it means to people with disabilities, and acknowledge that the implications of assisted suicide laws extend far beyond the handful of well publicized cases of terminally ill patients making eloquent arguments to take control of their own future. There is much more at stake.

While a tiny fraction of media coverage thus far has attempted to include concerns expressed by people with disabilities and other disability advocates, the rationale came across mainly as vague and inconsequential. It is not an issue that is easily communicated in sound bites.

That is because understanding how this decision about assisted suicide impacts on people with disabilities requires the broader understanding that this is already a population that suffers from second-class citizenship, both as an attitude by other citizens, as well as in the systemic sense as carried out by our institutions. The legacy of unmarked graves continues to haunt us (as it should).

Premier Wynne issues apology with regard to Ontario's institutional past

Premier Wynne issues official apology with regard to Ontario’s institutional past

From my own experience supporting people with intellectual disabilities and their families for the past 30 years or so, I have had the sad privilege of seeing how this discrimination plays out in ways that other citizens would likely find surprising. These realities remain mostly a dirty little secret, because they are often disguised as “benefits” rather than publicly decried for the harms that they do. You have contributed to them indirectly through your taxes, and perhaps even directly through donations or fundraising events to agencies that operate them. These situations include:

  • Labour code exemptions that subvert employment law (including paid work at less than minimum wage exempted as “training” that continues indefinitely)
  • Segregated environments including entire “disability-only” schools, sports, recreation, and housing (a recent Auditor General report reveals as much as 90% of our public investment supports segregated residential outcomes)

On the bright side, pressure to end discriminatory labour practices is at an all-time high, and Ontario government priorities are clearly encouraging of less segregated outcomes (shifts in social policy and funding now clearly favour community-based outcomes even as more “traditional” practices continue to consume most of our public investment).

I invite you to learn more about the assisted suicide issue and how it should be of interest and concern to Canadian citizens far beyond the limited scope of the stories presented to us through mainstream media. Here is some further recommended reading:

Andrew Coyne (National Post): Crossing the Rubicon, Supreme Court seems eerily complacent about ramifications of assisted suicide ruling

Some day, someone is going to bring a case before the Court arguing that children with an incurable disease and in “intolerable” pain should also have the right to assisted suicide, perhaps with their parents’ consent. Is the Court really going to condemn them to endure years of excruciating pain until they are of age? Likewise, is it really prepared to leave the mentally incompetent to suffer unbearably, when with the signature of a legal guardian they could be released? Or if personal autonomy is all, why should a “grievous and irremediable medical condition” be required? Isn’t it enough that you want to be dead, but need someone to help? At that point the Court will be caught, helpless before its own logic. And by then, so will we.

Catherine Frazee: Expert Opinion Report for the Québec Superior Court, LeBlanc v. A.G. of Canada, September 2012

It is, for all practical purposes, impossible to isolate a request for assistance to end one’s life from the context within which such a request is made. For this reason, within a social order that widely perceives disabled people’s lives and lifestyles to be of diminished value, the availability of medical assistance to terminate life upon demand places some people at risk of making a “choice” that does not reflect their true, autonomous desires.

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About Keenan Wellar

I'm a citizen of Ottawa (Ontario, Canada) and co-leader of local social change charitable organization LiveWorkPlay.ca which supports a good life for people with intellectual disabilities. I'm a very active user of social media. Find me on Facebook http://fb.me/kwellar on Twitter @SocialKeenan on LinkedIn http://tiny.cc/keenanw. I also manage organizational accounts http://fb.me/liveworkplayfans and @LiveWorkPlay. I make a lot of connections locally and worldwide with people who share my belief in inclusive communities, but I also talk sports, food, and travel, and there are few topics that offend me, so please don't be shy.
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4 Responses to A Matter Of Life And Death: Beyond The Headlines Of Physician-Assisted Suicide

  1. jennjilks says:

    This is very thoughtful, Keenan. I’m going to disagree with your point, however. I’ve had too many clients at end-of-life who may have come to a point in their lives where this would be a choice. That said, I cannot think of a particular client who may have made this choice. They either do not recognize that they will not recover, or would not choose to end their lives.
    What I feel is that Physician-assisted suicide is a decision between a sentient adult and a physician, not someone disabled, or a substitute decision-maker. This is the line. We must ensure, then, that those who create the law, all of the stakeholders, have a say in creating a law that will preclude the situation such as the Latimer case.

    • I think you’ve actually reinforced my point Jennifer, which is that people who celebrated the Supreme Court decision don’t understand that it has implications far beyond what THEY think it means. That it IS related to examples like the Tracy Latimer murder is very clear from the connections drawn by the media and Latimer himself. So I am asking that people challenge themselves to look beyond their own narrow understanding of the decision, recognize that it has serious life and death implications for others, and contribute to the dialogue on that basis.

  2. Audrey Cole says:

    Hello Keenan, please forgive my ignorance of the mechanics of today’s e-communication modes! This is not being sent in reply to the previous comments. It is, however, a sincere thank you for your piece on the recent decision of the Supreme Court of Canada. As a quite elderly Mum of a middle-aged son who lives with a significant disability, I share your concerns absolutely!

    If only people could find a way to step out of the immediate “me” or we” style of thinking, they, too, might realise that ultimately, they, almost inevitably by age alone, will become one of the “theys” or “thems” for whom society has little or no true respect or regard. The decision of the Supreme Court about doctor assisted suicide appears to ignore or, sadly, to be unaware of these social realities.

    If we truly wish to remain in control of our own end of life decisions, we have to give considerably more thought to the disability-related implications of the Supreme Court decision than I have noticed to date!

    Audrey D. Cole, O. Ont.

    • Thank you so much Audrey for taking the time and making the effort to post your reply publicly on my blog. This is not an easy topic to discuss and I am still learning about the intersection of social change, human rights, law-making, legislation, and so much more, I am trying to catch up and hopefully learned well from my brief but powerful moments spent listening to people like yourself.

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