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With assisted suicide, disability advocates rely on emotional blackmail

Photo: Calleamanecer, CC, Wikimedia Commons

Soon after the Supreme Court of Canada found that the prohibition against assisted suicide was unconstitutional, disability rights advocates responded with alarm, alleging that the disabled will experience even more oppression and injustice. From the activists’ point of view, the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision was nothing short of a betrayal.

For instance, in the Winnipeg Free Press last month, University of Ottawa professor Michael Orsini and postdoctoral fellow Christine Kelly forwarded a rather unique position: Liberals who exhibit compassion for those with terminal illnesses are “contributing to a long-standing tradition of relegating disability to the political margins.”

Upon examination of the “compassion equals oppression” paradigm, it is clear that the authors’ assertions—as well as those of disability rights advocates in general—are based on pure conjecture. Orsini and Kelly insist that a Supreme Court victory is short-sighted. The authors note that while charter-loving liberals celebrate the court’s judgment, their attitudes constitute a “blatant disregard for how such a decision might be interpreted by people with disabilities.”

This begs the question: What is the position of the disabled on assisted suicide?

An Ipsos Reid poll this past fall showed that 85 per cent of the disabled community approved of some form of assisted suicide. According to Orsini and Kelly, this would mean the vast majority of disabled Canadians—including Conservative Member of Parliament Steven Fletcher, himself a quadriplegic—are co-conspirators in their own oppression.

Moreover, an Angus Reid poll published in December found the majority of Canadians support assisted suicide for the terminally ill and those experiencing intractable pain (82 per cent and 76 per cent, respectively). In other words, there is a broad consensus among Canadians—disabled and nondisabled—that extreme suffering should be dealt with compassionately.

The authors also ignore the preponderance of evidence presented by the Supreme Court in Carter v. Canada (Attorney General). Referencing statistics from Oregon and the Netherlands, the court noted how “a system can be designed to protect the socially vulnerable” and that expert evidence established that the “predicted abuse and disproportionate impact on vulnerable populations has not materialized” in these jurisdictions.

When discussing the efficacy of safeguards, the court recognized how they work well in “protecting patients from abuse while allowing competent patients to choose the timing of their deaths.” The court eventually concluded that since prohibition “catches people outside the class of protected persons”, the ban on assisted suicide was overreaching. In other words, there is no open season on the disabled.

Orsini and Kelly simply overlooked opposing viewpoints that challenged their oppression model, relying instead on the moving testimonials of disabled rights advocates. One such poetic example was provided by activist Catherine Frazee, who insists on the value of living with profound disabilities: “The slings that lift us, the tubes that feed us, the instruments that fill our lungs with air and empty our bladders of urine are understood as tools for living, rather than as markers of spoiled life.”

Nancy B., Sue Rodriguez, Gloria Taylor, Dr. Donald Low and other assisted suicide advocates would have probably disagreed with Frazee’s definition of “living.”

If disability rights advocates wish to enlighten their audience about the plight of the vulnerable, perhaps they should rely more on scientific studies and less on emotional pleas.

Here is what we know as fact: Canadians overwhelmingly support assisted suicide for consenting adults with terminal illnesses, permissive states are not plagued by abuses, and empirical researchers have acknowledged the reliability of safeguards.

Since the Supreme Court’s recent decision was unanimous, it’s safe to say that our present justices were not fooled by the rhetorical strategies surrounding identity politics, and neither were the majority of Canadians—including the disabled.

Stuart Chambers, Ph.D., is a professor in the faculties of arts and social sciences at the University of Ottawa. As a paraplegic, he has also been a member of the disabled community for 30 years.