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Aug 17, 2015

Better off dead? What Peter Singer doesn't get about disability and euthanasia

Disability advocate Craig Wallace sets the record straight on what the euthanasia debate means to people living with disability.

Photo by Andrew Wilkinson

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?

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

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14 thoughts on “Better off dead? What Peter Singer doesn’t get about disability and euthanasia

  1. Ian Neering

    Sorry Craig but as a 69 year old polio type with respiratory and mobility issues, I demand the right to top myself when life gets too hard. It shouldn’t be too hard to frame appropriate legislation that protects the young and unborn.

    The problem with advocates such as yourself is that you frame the issue in absolute terms without allowing for nuance in the law.

  2. Yclept

    So that’s it then. If I end up in a vegetative state I should have no rights, and those around me should STFU and just watch me suffer. Thanks for opening up the debate and proposing such a meaningful way forward.

  3. Nicholas

    Craig Wallace evidently does not understand the difference between the words “voluntary” and “mandatory”.

  4. Roger Clifton

    The value we place on our antecedents when writing our histories is a lot different to the value we place on the antecedents to the futures we create. The egg and spermatozoon that gave rise to me I consider incredibly special, whereas what I should do with each of the thousands or billions of their current equivalents does not even enter my thinking. The growth of value is continuous through the passage of one’s shared history with a dependent. The ages at which the community assigns identity, rights, privileges and responsibilities seem arbitrary by comparison.

  5. Phen

    Manslaughter is not homicide.

  6. Decorum

    Gee, Craig: I had understood Singer’s position to be wanting to give your parents these rights, not give them to Peter Singer. I must look at his work again, it seems.

  7. Matters Peter

    stification for Euthanasia can be defined easily enough: ‘Euthanasia is justified when life degenerates into existence.’ If a human being – or your favourite pet, for that matter – is either in incurable pain, or no longer aware of being aware of being alive due to the brain’s degeneration, surely Euthansia is justified. With very few exceptions, objectors to Euthanasia do so on the strength of the outdated religious edict of human beings being God’s special children.

  8. crakeka

    Singer is regularly misrepresented. He is talking about profoundly disabled children and the rights and responsibilities of their parents, and the siblings of that child. He is talking those for whom life is mere existence versus any quality of life. He is talking about choice for families. A month would give parents and specialists time to assess the situation. If the State took full responsibility for the provision of effective and adequate support for such families the despair and financial burdens would not be so overwhelming. But try to walk a mile in the shoes of those families and tell me how anyone else has the right to tell them how they should proceed.

  9. Dogs breakfast

    I respect your right and your passion to oppose euthanasia, however straw man arguments such as this do not support your cause.

    Constructing legislation with the necessary safeguards does not require a listing of every disease or disablement, nor does shouting down the argument because you disagree with one of the many proponents on what is a completely separate issue.

    So you played the man rather than the ball.

    Which part of ‘voluntary’ causes so much confusion in those opposed? I don’t think it’s that hard.

  10. Daniel Pask

    The problem with euthanasia laws is that they are unable to cope with the nuances of life with a disability, as Craig points out. Sadly, anyone can commit suicide. It’s legal if you want to. The problem is that there are a lot of suicide prevention services, helplines and the like for people with out disabilities to access, but none that understand specific issues related to disability. This creates the perception that our suicides matter less than others’. This is a factor when examining laws relating to who may or may not receive euthanasia etc.

    In preventing euthanasia, a society would be upholding the rights of people in “vegetative” (non-responsive) states, and those with other disabilities, whereas legalising euthanasia would risk eroding such rights, as politicians and those in the medical profession would consider such people as likely to choose death, and may stop providing such good quality care for them in future.

    The “right” to euthanise a child is not one that should ever be foisted onto parents who are very often in shock at the birth of a child with a disability, in need of quality information, medical support and love. Implicitly telling such parents, “you can just kill this child and have another more perfect one” is grossly unfair, misleading and will cause extra stress.

    If the practice, and the legislation that allows it were safe, there would be no need of safeguards. including listing specific conditions that might incur sufficient suffering to justify euthanasia. This is merely likely to create a “euthanasia-class” of people who are expected to take the course towards euthanasia, and for whom facilities, services and care would be deemed less necessary. The practice may well be deemed voluntary, but present conditions for people with disabilities are such that it would be very easy for some to make that decision if it were legally available. We are pressured. None of the safeguards constructed in legislation around the world have prevented people dying “unnecessarily” (nobody’s death is “necessary”) because lack of societal care, lack of full consent and so on.