Sunday, February 22, 2015

Deconstructing Class

Given how much I dislike sitting through his movies, it doesn’t really seem like such a leap from Clint Eastwood to assisted suicide.  But I think the reason class took the turn it did was for the same reason that “Million Dollar Baby” became such a flash point for the disability rights movement:  People have very strong reactions to Maggie’s fate.  I’ve really never heard of anyone who wasn’t - at least metaphorically - moved to tears, either of rage or compassion.  There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground here, and maybe not much middle ground in the debate over assisted suicide.

But there should be.

As a daughter who so recently watched her mother die, I can say that I would have done anything legal to help my mother speed things up.  Because my mother - very specifically and insistently - made it clear that she wanted her death to come as quickly as possible.  I actually didn’t; for me our time at the hospice was, ironically, very healing.  For her it was a countdown to not being able to breath anymore.

When I started reading how adamantly opposed disability rights activists are to assisted suicide, I rejected their argument.  What they were describing had nothing to do with my mother’s situation - and that was how I related to the issue.  Linton says,
“I prefer to use the term euthanasia. The currently popular term physician-assisted suicide is not accurate to describe the deaths of people who are vulnerable to coercion because of economic necessity, family or social pressure, or disability.” (Kindle Locations 1862-1864)
The impression I got was that they believed people were in fact losing control of their lives, not gaining it.  I imagined someone who had just been seriously injured, or someone who needed extraordinary medical care but had no money, feeling pressured or distraught and giving up.  But their situations had no relation to my mother’s.  Instead I remembered my mother yelling at her team of seriously big deal New York City neurosurgeons, telling them they better figure out how to move this thing (her death) along.

My confusion was resolved when I read Haller, who talked about how people with terminal diseases are grouped with people who are disabled, as if they are in the same situation.  Until that was acknowledged, until I could see that some people are in a very different situation than the one we faced, I could not understand the argument.  But now I do, and then I watched “Million Dollar Baby” which illustrated it.

I don’t think this is a debate that can be successfully resolved with a simple pro and con strategy.  If people are basing their opinions on their own experiences, if it’s my mother versus your depressed friend who just found out she’s paralyzed, we can’t really sort this out.  But if there’s acknowledgement that what might be appropriate in our case is not appropriate in yours, we can come together.  Strategically, the people who support these bills are casting the biggest nets possible - get everybody who might support this on board to get it passed.  The counter argument has to be different - as Haller suggests, and as some laws require - terminal illness and disability need to be separated out.

I know that many, many people found Maggie’s plight in the movie to be compelling.  They thought she made the right decision. I think our job is to explain why they’re terribly wrong, without taking away options from someone who really is about to die.  It wasn’t a kindness to kill Maggie when she was distraught and hadn’t even had a chance to sort out what her life could be; I think it would have been a kindness if doctors had helped my mother ease out of her life quicker.

It’s not about choosing not to live a certain way; it’s about - when you know that you’re terminal - choosing to die a certain way.


  1. I think you raise such good points, Amy. I really appreciate your nuanced analysis. Having seen the pain my grandma was in toward the end of her life with a terminal illness, I've struggled with this debate as well, and I don't think the answer is to make a blanket argument that we should do everything possible to keep everyone alive at all costs regardless of the situation. The point that terminal illness and disability need to be clearly distinguished definitely seems helpful here. Thanks for sharing your experience and thoughts.

  2. I agree that every case is different, but I do think that much of the resistance from disability rights advocates comes from the fact that people with disabilities are often grouped together into one category. While terminal illness is different than other types of disability, each disability and the way in which each person exhibits his disability is different. Many people in our society see a person with a disability, with any disability, and think "I would not want to live like that. I would rather die than live like that." People with disabilities are seen as "different" and "undesirable." I think much of the debate comes into play because these stereotypes revolving around disability perpetuate a destructive cycle. Because of stereotypes, some people with disabilities either don't have the resources (like education or jobs) or don't have the social support needed to live a happy life. This cycle causes certain people with disabilities to want to commit suicide. Therefore, the underlying issues need to be addressed, rather than just accepting assisted suicide as an option for people with disabilities.

  3. Christina, that's really true. it's so important to point out how many supports are missing for many disabled people. The focus then should be on improving life, not ending it.