Prior to taking disability studies courses, I had never considered the connection between debates around physician-assisted suicide and issues surrounding disability justice. Even upon learning that this was a profoundly contentious issue for disability scholars and activists, I wasn’t really sure how to think about these links. I found Haller’s (2010) text really helpful in illuminating the connection between (widely-publicized) debates around physician-assisted suicide and the devaluation and subsequent oppression of people with disabilities. In class we discussed the really essential point that the fact that the so-called right to die has attracted broad public support while garnering support for policies and practices that enable one to live with dignity have faced strong opposition is, itself, a manifestation of ableism. Interestingly, both arguments defending the right to die and those opposing policies and programs that promote an inclusive and dignified life are justified on highly utilitarian and (often unfounded or overstated) economic grounds.
As we discussed in class this week, and as has come up in various conversations throughout the semester, I think much of the problem is rooted in liberal humanist conceptions of autonomy. I think this is relevant in a number of ways. On one level, the tendency to view people as not-fully-human, and thus not worth keeping alive, arises when their dependency is rendered starkly apparent, as in cases of physician-assisted suicide. Labeling such individuals subhuman, whose lives can’t and shouldn’t really be considered lives at all, enables us to uphold and reinforce an illusory sense of our own independence and autonomy. Additionally, the “right to die” is premised on the idea that people are making that decision autonomously and, thus, their “right” to death should be respected and their “choice” granted. This line of thinking looks only at the individual making the decision and ignores the conditions under which individual choices are made. In other words, this logic ignores the social, cultural, and historical context of pervasive ableism that necessarily restricts and constrains one’s “choice.” This problem with a liberal humanist conception of the subject further manifests in the way in which we conceptualize people making these decisions as only dependent, and not interdependent, which everyone necessarily is, despite our illusions of independence and autonomy. Subsequently, when friends/family members want to keep alive those in their lives who need various forms of life support, they’re considered irrational and their desires are often belittled as misplaced out of desperation and confusion. The conception of autonomy as existing in a vacuum removed from social, political, and cultural conditions has strong implications for both those contemplating physician-assisted suicide and people with disabilities, as well as all those whose lives are intertwined with theirs.
All that being said, I think that movements resisting physician-assisted suicide can lead to strange bed fellows (e.g. right to life advocates) and this type of activism has to be undertaken in particularly nuanced ways. Without a doubt, films such as Million Dollar Baby problematically naturalize and normalize the “right to die” and inherently devalue the lives of people with disabilities. Moreover, I absolutely think that the voices of disability activists should be represented in media debates around physician-assisted suicide and people considering that decision should have conversations with and be informed by people with disabilities, not encouraged/coerced into their decision by medical professionals who are interpellated through the same ableist system. Media portrayals of these controversies send a clear message that the lives of people considered disabled are less valued than those considered able-bodied. However, we live in a society that presently devalues disability and doesn’t socially or economically support people in the position of making that decision and I think, in light of that, the focus should be more on changing the myriad of conditions that lead people to make the decision to end their life than on targeting and potentially vilifying the individuals making the decision. I think disability scholars, advocates, and activists have to be nuanced in articulating their positions so that the conversation moves beyond individuals making decisions and, instead, renders clear the problematic and oppressive conditions under which such decisions are made.