By Taylor Hyatt. Watch a video version.
When asked to describe the impact of Bill C-7, which seeks to expand Canada’s euthanasia program, I struggled at first. At present, I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m not the target of these new developments. Other advocates could speak more eloquently to the bill’s immediate effect on their lives. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I recognized the need to be prepared – to look both back and forward. How has the value of my life been dismissed in the past? And what could the future hold if, down the road, the bill’s provisions no longer startle us – if they’re just “the way things should be done?”
The thought that it is better to be dead than to have a disability has not yet been expressed to my face. (However, people I know and cherish have heard it. The United Nations Special Rapporteur even acknowledged the influence of this insidious thought on support for assisted suicide laws in a report earlier this year.)
Instead, Bill C-7 (and its predecessor, Bill C-14) has caused all levels of society to question more subtly whether my existence might be too much to bear. By now, many people have heard the appalling question a doctor posed when I was seriously ill a few years ago: Are you sure…that I wanted to receive the interventions needed to continue living? Are you sure… (it was implied), that it isn’t time to opt out of an existence perceived to be nothing but struggle and pain?
Too burdensome to live with?
Bill C-7 reinforces the notion that certain disabilities – and, by extension, the people who have them – are too burdensome to live with. Now that death through the medical system is available and increasingly acceptable, it will soon be assumed that one will take the quick, painless, and easy way out should their body no longer conform to the norm.
Bill C-7 allows decisionmakers with no experience of disability and its related societal barriers – but who have authority and power that people with disabilities lack – to make judgments about whether living with one is worthwhile, or even possible.
Social services and supports are meant to give us an equal footing, but the hope behind such programs does not always translate to the outcome! In reality, these support systems are grossly insufficient. Some people with disabilities have declared their intention to pursue assisted suicide as a way out of the inhumane circumstances such programs can create, such as crushing poverty.
Of course, a person’s value and humanity do not change if they rely on publicly funded programs. Using them does not make a person less human, or less deserving of life. All people should be able to access the resources they need to live well.
In the medical sphere, too, research shows that doctors often perceive disabled people’s quality of life to be significantly worse than disabled people do themselves. When adjusting to a new condition, disabled people and those who support them look to these same professionals as authorities and guides.
Unfortunately, a medicalized view of disability is often founded on narrow, stereotypical and bleak assumptions. Left unchecked, misuse of the power to shape others’ perspectives – especially if the person has acquired their condition recently – can cost lives.
Only one witness
Similarly, if Bill C-7 is adopted only one witness (rather than the original two) is required to observe the signature of someone’s euthanasia application – and that witness can be a paid personal care provider for the person who wishes to die. An abusive caregiver could coerce their client into completing an application before serving as the sole witness.
If the person’s death is not deemed reasonably foreseeable under the new two-track application system, one of the two medical practitioners reviewing the request to die must have “expertise in the condition that is causing the person’s suffering.” Who makes the judgment about expertise? The medical practitioner, of course…and what if the cause of the person’s suffering is not their condition?
Choice in how to live
As disability rights advocates say, the choice to die cannot be made freely if you do not have a free choice in where and how you live.
Again, thanks to social barriers – many related to public policies – the life choices of people with disabilities are already limited. We often lack affordable and accessible housing, sufficient income (and all that goes it – ask me about my diet while on provincial disability cheques sometime!), and the in-home assistance that allows us to live independently.
The novel coronavirus has made this situation worse.
- Expenses have risen even for those on fixed incomes, who have less wiggle room.
- People who rely on personal support staff for assistance with everyday activities may have a harder time getting them to come to shifts, for fear that either party will become ill.
- Many also have to pay for personal protective equipment for their staff, which is nearly impossible when living in extreme poverty.
- In addition, since grocery stores have been highlighted as sources of potential outbreaks, some disabled people are opting to have their groceries delivered. (I’m one of them.)They may have incurred hundreds of dollars in service fees since the coronavirus reached Canada.
- I haven’t even touched on the disadvantages disabled people face under the various medical protocols created to help hospitals handle the increase in traffic.
We should be horrified that our government representatives are attempting to expand the eligibility criteria for life-ending measures in the middle of a pandemic which exacerbates existing barriers and creates new ones.
The preamble to Bill C-7 references the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (which Canada ratified in 2010). It also affirms Parliament’s recognition of “the inherent and equal value of every person’s life” and the need for a human rights-based approach to disability. Our leaders pride themselves on being free of prejudice and upholding human rights.
I wish they would help Canada live up to this reputation – in practice as well as in theory – and work just as hard to provide equal opportunities to live.
Taylor Hyatt is a disability rights activist in Ottawa.