Disability rights activists say euthanasia poses deadly threat

By Deborah Gyapong

Canadian Catholiv News

OTTAWA (CCN) — Disability rights advocates made impassioned pleas to parliamentarians Oct. 2 to block any change to laws prohibiting assisted suicide and euthanasia.

At a luncheon organized by Toujours Vivant — Not Dead Yet (TVNDY) and hosted by NDP MP Joe Comartin, speaker after speaker living with a range of disabilities warned of the dangers legalization would pose to their lives and their options for care.

TVNDY executive director Amy Hasbrouck told the members of Parliament from all three major parties and senators her group, which is a division of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, is a non-religious organization united in its opposition to euthanasia and assisted suicide.

She expressed concern about the Carter Case to be argued before the Supreme Court of Canada Oct. 15 and Conservative MP Steven Fletcher’s private member’s bills in favour of assisted suicide.

“The voice of people with disabilities needs to be heard,” she said.

She described any change to the existing legal framework as unnecessary, since people already have the right to refuse treatment or to receive palliative sedation for intractable pain. She said any changes would be discriminatory, since normal persons wishing suicide would receive treatment, but disabled persons would be helped to kill themselves.

Catherine Frazee, professor emerita of the School of Disability Studies at Ryerson University, spoke via video to the gathering, noting the disabled community represents hundreds of thousands of Canadians and their families. “Please do not relegate us to the margins,” she said.

No one should suggest our lives are undignified because of “the way our naked bodies were handled by caregivers” that morning or by “the number of tubes going in or out of our bodies,” she said.

“See me as anything less than your equal in human worth, and in that moment you will have robbed me of my dignity,” she said. “For my dignity is utterly bound up with your respect for my way of life. It is not solitary it is social. It comes from you in relation to me.”

Frazee urged the politicians to resist the sound-bite claim that assisted suicide is a matter of individual choice. Instead, she said, it is a matter of societal choice between two competing social visions.

She urged the MPs and senators present to maintain a vision that sees all human life as worthy of dignity. “Please issue the decision that makes us better,” she said. “We have asked nothing less.”

Nic Steenhout, executive director of Living with Dignity, a Quebec-based grassroots coalition opposed to euthanasia, said the evidence from countries that have legalized euthanasia is horrifying.

In Belgium and the Netherlands, where euthanasia is only supposed to occur at the end of life, there is widespread abuse of the law and cases where people living with disabilities have been euthanized without consent, he said.

In Holland, there are 42 cases of euthanasia involving people with psychiatric illnesses, he said.

Norman Kunc, who holds a master’s degree in family therapy and is a popular conference speaker, warned any loosening of the laws against assisted suicide will “provide a vehicle for state-sanctioned murder.”

He raised the spectre of elder abuse, noting many frail elderly people may be pressured by their families to request assisted suicide so as not to be a burden. “How can you put in guidelines to prevent this kind of coercion from taking place?” he said.

Legalizing assisted suicide gives a disabled or sick person the ability to request death, but the authority will go to the physicians to decide if that person lives or dies, he said. Soon the request will become irrelevant, he warned, and euthanizing people without their consent will be framed as “a rational, compassionate act.”

“We have a pervasive perception that life with a disability involves a great deal of suffering,” he said. The idea some people are better off being put out of their misery, means “benevolence toward disabled people has a dark side.”

Kunc, who uses a wheelchair and has cerebral palsy, said he worries about what would happen if he was involved in car accident and unable to speak. His doctor might look at his chart and his condition and decide not to bother treating him. In Belgium, people wear bracelets saying, “Do not euthanize me.”

He asked if people in Canada have to start wearing such bracelets “in order to feel safe.”

Heidi Janz, an adjunct professor at the University of Alberta specializing in disability ethics, spoke to the gathering using a computer generated voice, accompanied by words on a screen. She said the fact she needs personal care assistance and a feeding tube puts her in fear of her next time being admitted to ICU for respiratory problems. She said a physician might look at her feeding tube and chart and decide “any further treatment is futile.”

She warned against the “systematic devaluation of our lives” and the growing conclusion “we are better off dead.” The legalization of euthanasia would “jeopardize the lives of hundreds of thousands of disabled people,” she warned.

Bonita Sawatzky, an associate professor of orthopedics at the University of British Columbia, shared how she was born with a prenatal spinal cord disease similar to polio. In 1993, she was in a car accident that put her in a wheelchair. She went into a deep depression. Her doctor recognized she was suffering from PTSD and helped her get medical, social and spiritual support. More recently she suffered debilitating pain from a defective bone implant in her jaw that disintegrated. However, last year, she had a new titanium jaw bone inserted and the pain is now gone. “Our society says support and encourage people and don’t give up on them,” she said.

In her work as a spinal cord injury specialist, she has met many who wanted to have people let them die. “They got help and are now contributing members of society,” she said.

Disability activist Steve Passmore said the Supreme Court of Canada “needs to guarantee the rights of people with disabilities to exist.”

“I want to be protected under Canadian law,” he said. “I want to live.”

Passmore expressed concern about society’s determining that suffering makes people worthy of death. That makes anyone who suffers with a disability threatened. He also warned that if euthanasia is brought in, soon physicians will be forced to say they will participate in it.

“The Supreme Court must go beyond the side issues of using suffering as a right to kill people,” he said. He warned legalizing euthanasia, “will rob me of my treatment options.”

“Say no to giving the power of life and death to anyone in our society,” he said.  

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