Euthanasia: A real choice?

The debate surrounding euthanasia, much like the debate surrounding abortion, is often characterised by two polarised camps; those for whom sanctity of life is paramount, and those which place the importance on having the freedom of personal choice and bodily autonomy. Unlike abortion, where the ‘pro-choice’ argument is fiercely defended by the women’s rights movement, the ‘pro-choice’ argument over whether it is right to legalise euthanasia for elderly or disabled people is, rather patronisingly, usually made by the medical establishment “on behalf” of disabled people. Disabled people themselves often get little say in the matter.

In order to fully explore the debate around assisted suicide, we must look at the different ways in which society views disability and what the reality of life is like for people who have physical or mental impairments which affect the way they interact with the world. There are two major camps; the more dominant medical model and the less discussed social model as put forward by disability rights activists. The medical model conceptualises disability as intrinsic to the individual and as something to be cured or managed by the use of drugs or other therapy, often accused portraying disabled people as being something to be pitied and helped, rather than as people who happen to have impairments.

The social model put forwards an alternative view encompassing physical, social and environmental factors; that people may have physical or mental impairments, but it is society as a whole which disables the individual by the process of exclusion and neglect. For example, an individual with an impairment which effects their ability to walk would still be able to go about normal daily life if they had a wheelchair and everywhere they wanted to go was wheelchair accessible. They are only ‘disabled’ when their ability to do something is affected, which is usually because society has neglected to cater for their needs.

The social model is largely favoured by the disabled community, as not only does it offers more effective tactics to empower disabled people to access a higher standard of living in real terms, but it moves away from the idea of impairments being something to cure as opposed to something that is simply another aspect of someones life. This is especially relevant for people with hidden impairments, such as Aspergers Syndrome, whose “impairments” could more accurately be described as natural variance in the way people think as opposed to something that could be cured or would even warrant a cure.

Wheelchair-dancing scene from Glee! Disabled people are often ignored in the debate over euthanasia.

Often in the debate over assisted suicide, people with more ‘severe’ impairments, such as permanent neurological pain, who lead difficult lives are used to justify the pro-choice position. But the medical establishment who use disabled people as posterchildren for the pro-euthanasia cause are not passive observers of the suffering of the elderly or severely disabled people, their involvement in the treatment and care of individuals make them complicit in their suffering in their everyday life. When a person is institutionalised in a nursing home, care home or hospital; the right to choose when to wake up, what to eat, when to eat, what to do and where to go are taken away. When someone is disempowered to such a degree, no matter what their particular impairment, life must ultimately be made harder. It becomes a question of whether the care given by the medical establishment to elderly and disabled people is enough to allow people a life worth living.

Because the medical establishment often fall short of providing truly assisted living, but are often keen to propose assisted suicide, many people with physical impairments see euthanasia and assisted suicide as an attack on their community and actively campaign against it. The call for a state ban, whether it is by religious clergy or from disabled people themselves, lacks empathy for people who genuinely want to die; and often betrays a lack of understanding for long term mental health problems that include suicidal tendencies as part of their diagnosis, or the mental health problems that arise alongside a rapid deterioration of health when someone gets old. It also raises the issue of whether criminalising suicide is a useful tactic for
improving the lives of people who actively want to die.

Disabled people are frustrated with the debate, especially considering that it fundamentally decides whether they live or die and is
dominated by the clergy or medical establishment, who whilst polar-opposites in their position, share an ignorance of disability
issues and an unwillingness to listen to the voices of disabled people. The debate itself represents a false dichotomy; what is seen
as the ‘pro-choice’ position here doesnt give a viable option for disabled people to live lives worth living, and the pro-life side of
the debate hardly improves the lives of those wishing to die by criminalising them. The real ‘pro-choice’ position here is third camp; where disabled people are given assistance where they need it to live decent lives, and, if they require it, assistance to die.

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    • william wallace
    • November 30th, 2010

    An experience of many wrongly called CARE HOMES
    one could make comments / as to the poor as non
    existant care. // The downright appalling abuse
    the brick wall coming up against / if trying to
    get council depts social services taking action.

    In the case of illness among elderly /such idea
    in taking ones life / more preferable to living
    a early death being appealing as understandable
    as exist in misery/in a dire uncaring situation.

    Abortion //at one time one having little choice
    in the matter // a single mum & chid were going
    to face very hard times. // The anti single mum
    brigade (church) taught appalling malice / hate
    toward an female a child seen an product of sin.

    In present times the situation having far more
    understanding unto the female /as her right in
    choice /to keep the child or consider adoption.

    If it be a choice in abortion then such choice
    is choice made by female /thus it be respected.

  1. Excellent commentary, Very articulate. I am happy to see you delineate certain aspects of the dichotomy so lucidly. The issues become more complex even if you look at extremely disabled children and their right to life. Perhaps that should be an entirely different discussion but I believe that people like Peter Singer have lumped it all together.

    In countries like Holland there is no debate worth mentioning, the practice of euthanasia has simply been accepted based on the idea, “that it’s already being done.”

    Personally I believe the discussion should still be considered embryonic while others are either thoroughly entrenched in opposition or appear to have skipped some kind of proper discussion protocol; for example by including the severely disabled individuals or the parents of extremely disabled children.

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