Reviewing last week’s Sydney University debate about euthanasia for Crikey, Margot Saville seems surprised that Professor Peter Singer polarised the debate and drew people to the microphone to “shriek at him about abortion and disabled people and infanticide”.
While it’s correct that debates about euthanasia are emotive, often on both sides, it should also be no surprise that people with disabilities greet the Princeton University ethicist with the suspicion that Bronwyn Bishop might attract if she rappelled out of a chopper into a tactics meeting of the federal parliamentary Labor Party, to snatch Bill Shorten’s zingers just before question time.
If proponents of voluntary euthanasia were looking to reassure us that legalised suicide would, in fact, be voluntary and not about people with disabilities, they chose the wrong standard bearer. Singer is consistently on the record supporting infanticide of babies with certain disabilities. In his book Practical Ethics, Singer argues the case for selective infanticide. He believes it unfair that:
“At present parents can choose to keep or destroy their disabled offspring only if the disability happens to be detected during pregnancy. There is no logical basis for restricting parents’ choice to these particular disabilities. If disabled newborn infants were not regarded as having a right to life until, say, a week or a month after birth it would allow parents, in consultation with their doctors, to choose on the basis of far greater knowledge of the infant’s condition than is possible before birth.”
Singer may not be “poised, needle in hand” ready to plunge it into the arm of the nearest disabled person. It is, nonetheless, difficult to stick to topic when a person who thinks it might have been a good idea to “destroy” you as a child offers you a whisky shot glass and a pistol in latter days. Forgive us for having trust issues.
My challenge to advocates of voluntary euthanasia who insist it would “never be about someone like you”, as they invariably do, would be to ask them to specifically rule us out or rule something in.
If euthanasia is truly only about forestalling the excruciating final hours of people with conditions like end-stage cancer, then why not list the illnesses that are covered in clear diagnostic terms?
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Because euthanasia legislation consistently defines eligibility through terms like “terminal or irremediable illnesses” the extent of coverage remains opaque.
When does a condition become terminal, exactly? Most medical practitioners would say that a disability like mine shortens the lifespan. There is no clearly defined boundary between a shortened life span and a terminal illness.
When is a condition “irremediable”? Many disabilities are permanent and a person might be unable to move, eat, walk or shower without the support of another person. I know many people with disabilities that look like this. And, at the time they acquired their disabilities, they have told me they want to die.
Yet talk to them a few years down the track and they have gone on to live lives that are different, yet productive and meaningful, including raising a family and resuming a career. What’s been remediated in the meantime is not their disability, but barriers and a lack of supports in their lives.
My opposition to euthanasia is not a religious one. For me, it’s impossible to separate discussions on euthanasia and eugenics from disability rights. Our lives are as important as everyone else’s. All they are is different, and different is fine.
I oppose introducing euthanasia in a toxic climate. Much of the discourse around disability positions us as better off dead. You do not have to look hard to find people advocating involuntary sterilisation and minimising parental homicides of people with disabilities. You also do not have to look hard to find stories — including on the front pages of daily newspapers — that label all of us as slackers and a drain on society.
Those of us with disability also seem to be a class apart from the consensus that suicide is a waste of potential, and a tragedy.
For any other group of people in the community who contemplate suicide, such as women trapped in a spiral of domestic violence, we actively offer suicide counselling, shelter and support.
Likewise, LGBT youth have a great support resource called the It Gets Better Project. It was created as a response to high levels of suicide among young people who experience bullying and rejection. It refutes the idea that the way people are is the problem.
Well, life gets better for many people with disabilities, too. And that happens when we remove abuse, end discrimination, eliminate access barriers and receive the right supports. Commenting on the recent debate on legislation before Parliament in the United Kingdom, Silent Witness actress and disability campaigner Liz Carr put it well when she said that “what disabled people need is an assisted living, not an assisted dying bill”.
For some of us in Australia, the assisted living part needs to get a lot better. Australia is still at the early stages of implementing a National Disability Insurance Scheme, which will provide the most basic help to hundreds of thousands of people with disability, up until now denied any kind of support.
As Stella Young put it: conversations about dying with dignity are important. But we must first ensure we’re all able to live with dignity.
*Craig Wallace is convenor of Lives Worth Living, a disability advocacy group speaking out about euthanasia and eugenics, and is also president of People with Disability Australia (PWDA). You can follow him @CraigWtweets