Assisted suicide and the erasure of disability


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You could be forgiven for wondering if there is a "left" left in politics nowadays.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/02/2015 (2856 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

You could be forgiven for wondering if there is a “left” left in politics nowadays.

Otherwise progressively oriented people have been competing to find the appropriate terms to gush over the recent Supreme Court decision on doctor-assisted suicide — watershed, landmark, game-changer. The Supreme Court has even been commended for venturing into territory cowardly parliamentarians have been loath to go near, as if this is a radical departure for the high court. Joseph Arvay, who argued the case, set the tone by declaring the decision was a victory “for all Canadians.”

A victory for all Canadians?

Where does this leave people with disabilities who are uncomfortable with this decision? The Supreme Court ruling reminds us of how disability, dependence and bodily difference continue to challenge common conceptions of social justice to the point of erasure. No individual with a disability, of course, speaks for all people with disabilities, but neither should one woman’s plea to end her life somehow represent the sum total of what it means to live with a disability or illness in this country.

Leading feminist theorist Sara Ahmed reminds us to be wary of claims to being progressive or critical, especially as they pertain to racism and sexism. As she explains, it can mean people who claim to be critical fail to see how they are implicated in forms of oppression. Liberals who think the Supreme Court decision is solely about compassion for the less fortunate, those with irremediable illness, are contributing to a long-standing tradition of relegating disability to the political margins.

It should not come as any surprise that liberal, charter-loving Canadians are sometimes inconsistent in their politics. But the blatant disregard for how such a decision might be interpreted by people with disabilities is galling. The Supreme Court does allude in its decision to a disability critique about the value of life, but it wastes no time in getting to the point: The choice is cruel. Having to choose between taking your own life or dying from natural causes conjures a world where living with disability and dependence is worse than death and a world that demands we live “better than well” to thrive, to quote disability activist Patty Berne.

The Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD), one of the few remaining national disability rights organizations in Canada, has a long and somewhat reluctant involvement in this contentious issue. In 1993, the CCD was an intervener in the Rodriguez vs. British Columbia case, the decision against doctor-assisted suicide the Supreme Court of Canada overturned on Friday. As an intervener, the CCD started with a complicated position, but abruptly changed its position when Tracy Latimer was murdered in 1993. In light of the widespread public support for convicted murderer Robert Latimer, the CCD and many disability activists took and maintain a hard line against doctor-assisted suicide because of the tangible fear life-or-death decisions will be made based on assumptions about life with disability, rather than on the perspective of the person living with a disability.

Leading up to and following Friday’s decision, disabled voices have challenged simplistic positions on doctor-assisted suicide. Catherine Frazee, an activist, scholar and artist, insists on the value of living with profound disabilities. She comments: “The slings that lift us, the tubes that feed us, the instruments that fill our lungs with air and empty our bladders of urine are understood as tools for living, rather than as markers of spoiled life.” Commenting on the inadequacy of public services required to meaningfully support people living with a disability, Heidi Janz, scholar and activist, commented that the decision intones: “We won’t do anything to help you LIVE, but now, we’re prepared to hasten your death.” Prior to the decision, the Canadian Association of Community Living speculated “Dependence upon others will come to be seen as a suffering too great to bear.” In the face of such palpable fears grounded in long and ongoing histories of abuse, segregation and exclusion, celebrating the Supreme Court’s decision seems misplaced and only compounds the injustices experienced by Canadians with disabilities.


Michael Orsini is director of the Institute of Feminist and Gender Studies and associate professor in the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa. Christine Kelly is a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Ottawa whose work explores disability movements and the politics of care.

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