Euthanasia: Wrong is wrong, even if people are doing it.

By Meghan Schrader

Meghan Schrader

Editor’s note. Meghan is an autistic person who is an instructor at E4 Texas at the University of Texas (Austin) and a EPC-USA board member.

I was reflecting the other day on how I first became aware of the issues of euthanasia  and assisted suicide, and what my experience indicates about a “majority” support for euthanizing people with disabilities. 

Back in 1998, during my last year of middle school, I had to take a class called Creative Problem Solving. It was basically an ethics class where people had to think through our opinions about controversial social issues. Our class studied the death penalty in-depth, but we talked about other issues too, and one of the issues we talked about was whether it was ok to help people with disabilities die by suicide.

John Kelly’s 1998 editorial about the death of 21-year-old, newly quadriplegic African American man Roosevelt Dawson at the hands of doctor Kevorkian was in the Boston Globe at that time; I think that’s what inspired my Massachusetts teacher to lead the discussion.

He described the case; telling us that Dawson had been released from the hospital following a paralyzing infection, despite the hospital knowing that he intended to go to Dr. Kevorkian. “Wait, you mean they let him out of the hospital even though they knew that he was planning to die by suicide?” I asked. “That’s a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.” One other person agreed. “It’s wrong to kill people,” he said.

However, almost everyone else in the class said nothing. I think that one other person said, “Well, I wouldn’t want to live like that either.” As a Special Education student, the connection between what we were discussing and the oppression of disabled people generally was blatantly obvious to me. “But think about all the technology we have nowadays,” I objected. “There are plenty of ways to accommodate people who are quadriplegic to lead fulfilling lives.”

At the time, the term “ableism” wasn’t really in the public lexicon, so I used the only words I could come up with: “that’s discrimination,” I said, “it’s wrong to help people kill themselves because they have disabilities.” The lone other objector in the class agreed.

Then the teacher read a poem by Canadian poet Earl Birney. In it, two mountain climbers, Bobbi and David, ascend a peak together. On the way up, David kills a wounded bird. Bobbi notes: “That day returning we found a robin gyrating In grass, wing-broken. I caught it to tame but David took and killed it, and said, ‘Could you teach it to fly?’” Hence, the character David basically has the perspective that utilitarians and often general society has toward disabled individuals: accommodating disability is a hassle and eliminating disabled people is the easiest thing to do.

Then, in an ironic twist, David falls fifty feet, leaving him severely injured. Since David can’t feel his legs, he assumes that he will be paralyzed for life, and will need a wheelchair. Bobbi offers to stay with him or go for help, but David wants her to push him off a nearby cliff.

The teacher stopped reading the poem at that point and posed this question to the class: Should Bobbi push David off the cliff?

Again, there was the same pattern, with me and this one other guy objecting. “Of course she should not push him off a cliff,” I said, “she hasn’t even called 911 yet. What if he’s not paralyzed? And even if he was, that doesn’t mean that his life is worthless and she should push him off a cliff.” “Yeah, everyone has the equal right to live,” the objecting young man said.

As with our earlier discussion about Roosevelt Dawson’s suicide, most of the people in the class simply sat silently, looking uncomfortable. But, one of the class’s consummate bullies was more vocal about his perspective: “Of course she should push him off the cliff,” he said. “He’s a useless lump of flesh and he’ll burden everyone around him. What use does he have to society?” (This same bully had contributed to our class discussions about the death penalty by proudly saying that he would be willing to kill his own mother in the electric chair; I hope that he grew out of that type of thinking.)

Unfortunately, the bully’s perspective was the one that prevailed: most of the people in the class who were finally willing to say something agreed that Bobbi should push David off the cliff. And, what do you know, when the teacher finished the poem, we learned that she did just that.

I think that this anecdote from my eighth-grade classroom illustrates that personal choice shouldn’t always be sacrosanct. The Davids of the world aren’t entitled to conscript society into the rule of Bobbi so that the medical system can help them apply their nihilistic views about disability to themselves. Preventing violence and hate means that in equitable societies, majorities are obliged to cede some of their power to protect the rights of minorities.

From what I can tell, that middle school discussion was basically a microcosm of what most of contemporary human society has done in regard to euthanasia and its impact on the lives of disabled people. Most people either ignore it, or they are ok with it. However, this is a clear example of a time when communal support for an evil idea has been wrought from social conditioning and bigotry.

Majority support doesn’t make something right, and the majority should not always get what it wants.

Editor’s note. This appeared on the blog of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition and is reposted with permission.