The right to die and save the rest of us a bunch of money?

Op-eds Opinions

Never let it be said that non-disabled people don’t support disability rights. There’s at least one right the public is prepared to go the distance on — the right to die. Judging by public opinion pieces and media coverage of the recent B.C. Supreme Court case involving right-to-die activist Gloria Taylor, who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the public is all over the right of disabled people to get the help they need if they choose to commit suicide.

It’s peculiar, really, because we spend millions of dollars on suicide prevention. When a non-disabled person attempts suicide, we see it as a cry for help. Suicidal individuals can even be temporarily committed to a medical institution to prevent them from harming themselves. But the right-to-die movement wants to change all that — just for those of us who are disabled and need a hand with the process. Killing a non-disabled person, even if they ask you to, would still be murder.

Margaret Somerville, a law professor and the founding director at the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University, weighs in 100 per cent opposed to physician-assisted suicide. Somerville argued recently in the Globe and Mail that it cannot be morally justified and would inevitably lead to euthanasia.

Not all physicians are eager to add lethal prescriptions to their medical practice. Some feel it breaks with Hippocrates and 2300 years of pledging to “do no harm” to their patients. In the Taylor case, the opposing sides each had doctors arguing for them.

Except for high-profile plaintiffs like Taylor, few people with disabilities are involved in the fight for the right to die. In fact, consistent opposition to these new laws comes from disability advocacy groups including the Council of Canadians with Disabilities. So, if people with disabilities generally aren’t behind this “right to die” or “death with dignity” movement, then who is? 

According to Stephen Drake of the anti-euthanasia group Not Dead Yet, pro-assisted suicide campaigns are most often driven by foundations primarily funded by successful, wealthy people. These people have achieved a great deal of control in their lives and want to continue to be in control when they die. Statistics from Oregon, which enacted the first American Death With Dignity Act in 1997, tell us that physician-assisted suicide has most frequently been used by well-off individuals with an average age of 70 who cite “control” as their motivation.

For decades, foundations like the Hemlock Society argued in favour of legalized mercy killing. Numerous court challenges failed in America, so euthanasia proponents changed the terms; for example, the Hemlock Society is now called Compassion & Choices. According to its financial statements, the bulk of the foundation’s $6 million-per-year revenues are spent on “public education.” As long-time euthanasia opponent Wesley Smith explains in his article “Words, Words, Words,” if you promote it with the right words, the appalling becomes appealing.

The B.C. court decision would allow a physician to “assist” you to kill yourself if you can’t manage it on your own. Mind you, the terms “kill yourself” or “suicide” are too harsh for Taylor; she would like the action she contemplates to be called “assisted dying.” Euphemisms like “comfort care” and “end-of-life treatment options” abound.

As Rhonda Wiebe of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities points out, $39.95 will buy you a take-home suicide kit in Oregon. Cheap is appealing to most of us; compared to long-term care for the elderly or life-long support for the disabled, what a bargain. How sure are we that there won’t be pressure to take the cheaper route? More importantly, how sure are we that physicians and families will wait to be asked?

Judging by comments from the public, the distinction between request and unrequested aid to die escapes many people. One of the most frequent points made on comment boards in support of physician-assisted death is a simple comparison to animals being “put down.” We’re allowed to do it for our old dog, so why not for our old mother? Because your mother is a human being, that’s why. Same reason the physician shouldn’t do it for your mother. Or anyone.