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Euthanasing the disabled

  • 29 June 2012

Last week, the Supreme Court of the Canadian province British Columbia released its decision in the Carter v Attorney Geeral Canada case.  The decision lifted the ban on physician-assisted suicide, and followed a courtroom battle late last year.  While some lobby groups welcomed the decision, other groups lamented the development and encouraged residents of British Columbia to write to their politicians in protest. 

Many people assume that objections to euthanasia or assisted suicide are only grounded in religious beliefs relating to the sanctity of life and a belief in the divine breath that animates human existence.  Some supporters of euthanasia state that human life is not sacred. Other supporters of euthanasia acknowledge the mystery of life and death and see assisted suicide as a personal decision and a means of self-determination; a legitimate way to decide to end their suffering.  

But there are many objections to euthanasia or assisted suicide based solely on public policy reasoning, rather than religious belief.  Some argue against assisted suicide for based on precedent and the so-called ‘slippery slope’.  Others argue against it because it places medical professionals in a difficult ethical predicament.  And others argue against it out of concern for vulnerable groups such as elderly or disabled people. 

In fact, people with disabilities are a significant protest group in euthanasia debates.  However, their minority representation, vulnerable status and the limitations of both people with disabilities and their carers means their voice is frequently muffled in public discussion.  This is despite the compelling reasons for the opposition of many in the disability sector to euthanasia in all its forms.  

Dr Gregor Wolbring of the University of Calgary presents these reasons by refuting each of the four safeguards proposed by euthanasia advocates.  He argues that the scenario proffered by the right-to-die movement – a terminally ill, mentally competent adult patient in physical pain who seeks to make their own decision about their death – is a carefully chosen case designed to elicit sympathy for the cause.  Such a case masks the sinister implications of euthanasia for people with disabilities. 

In response to the first criterion, that euthanasia must relate to a terminal condition, Wolbring cites numerous euthanasia supporters who have broadened the definition of ‘terminal’.  Terminal patients are variously incorporated with those who are in constant suffering for which there is not hope for recovery (‘incurable’), those who are fearful of dependence and who wish to avoid possible ‘indignity’,