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“Stop telling people with disabilities they might be better off dead”

by | Dec 23, 2020

By Alex Schadenberg, Executive Director, Euthanasia Prevention Coalition

The Toronto Star published an excellent article on December 21 written by Lisa Bendall, a disability leader and former editor of Abilities Magazine

Lisa Bendall

Bendall’s article concerns Bill C-7, the bill to expand euthanasia in Canada, and its effect on people with disabilities. 

Bill C-7 is currently being debated by Canada’s Senate. 

Bendall explains:

Senators are currently deliberating Bill C-7, which would allow assisted suicide for people who aren’t near death. Not all people, mind you; just people who happen to have disabilities. While many of us fear that this bill might steer vulnerable people toward an untimely death, others argue that that’s a paternalistic viewpoint, and that the law would have built-in protections.

But think on this. People with disabilities are constantly bombarded with the subtle and not-so-subtle message that it’s better to be dead than disabled. We know from experience that this has an impact on the way people are treated in public, in private and in health care.

Bendall writes about her friend, Audrey King:

Toronto’s Audrey King, who lives with the effects of polio, was hospitalized with pneumonia in 2018. While she was fighting for her life, her PSW [Personal Support Worker] overheard two nurses talking: “This is cruel. Why can’t they just let her go?” King, an artist and retired psychologist, is convinced no one would speak that way of a patient without a disability. “My life has been rich and full,” she says. “I’ve achieved far more than most ‘upright’ people, thanks to all the support I’ve had.”

Bendall then tells a personal story about her husband:

When my husband Ian was hospitalized in 2018 for a fairly benign problem, he unexpectedly had complications that led to cardiac arrest and ventilation. Because of his weak muscles — he’s quadriplegic from a decades-old spinal cord injury — he needed a tracheotomy in order to come off the ventilator gradually, building back his stamina.

A doctor new to his case came to meet us — and to tell Ian that even with the surgery, he might never get off the ventilator. We knew that already. To our horror, the doctor then matter-of-factly suggested another option: Ian could skip the tracheotomy, have the ventilator removed instead, and be kept comfortable as he died.

We were stunned that a doctor charged with my husband’s care could so blatantly disregard his life, even one in which he potentially used a ventilator (as a couple of our friends did). It hadn’t crossed Ian’s mind to give up; he had a loving family and was starting his retirement. “From that moment on, I was afraid of having this man as my doctor,” he says. Incidentally, Ian was back home, healthy, within weeks.

Bendall continues with the story of Candice Lewis:

Candice Lewis of Newfoundland had a similarly traumatic experience in 2016, according to CBC News. While the young woman with disabilities was sick in hospital, she overheard a doctor telling her mother that assisted suicide was an option. Mother and daughter were shocked.

In her conclusion, Bendall gets to the crux of the issue:

Why single out people with disabilities as the only nondying Canadians who can choose assisted suicide, as Bill C-7 proposes to do? Most people with suicidal feelings are given treatment, not MAID, even if they feel that their situation — poverty, loneliness, depression — makes life unbearable.

Furthermore, until people with disabilities have proper access to supports, it’s unconscionable to provide them with a direct path to death. Anyone who is housebound because of a lack of transportation, in pain because they can’t afford therapies, lonely because their housing is far from loved ones, or suffering from PSW shortages is more likely to feel suicidal.

Here’s another consideration: Some people who are new to having a disability may believe their emotional turmoil will never ease. Yet they may later go on to live a full, rewarding life. Liberal MP Marcus Powlowski, a physician, voted against C-7 for this reason, 
saying, “Morally, it’s incumbent upon me to stand up when it comes to issues of health and life and death.”

If this legislation passes, there is a strong chance it will result in needless deaths and great losses to society. That makes it a dangerous bill indeed

Editor’s note. This appeared on Mr. Schadenberg’s blog and is reposted with permission.