BBC documentary supports suicide for disabled people

This entry originally appeared on my disability blog, I hate stairs.

By Matt Watson

British author Terry Pratchett’s June 6 BBC-aired documentary “Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die” is yet another example of the trending idea that if you become disabled, you might as well kill yourself.

I’m stuck between sadness and anger. Sadness because people who acquire a disability or terminal illness sometimes (or perhaps often) seriously consider committing suicide; anger because there is a growing number of folks encouraging them to do so.

It is certainly a trend. Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar’s 2004 film “The Sea Inside,” which I admit I’ve never seen, tells the true story of a ship mechanic turned quadriplegic who campaigns for the legalization of assisted suicide and when he doesn’t succeed, kills himself with cyanide. You know, because who would want to be quadriplegic and still live? That same year, the Oscar’s Best Picture, Million Dollar Baby, seemed to tell us that when a person is faced with paralysis, society’s aversion to suicide should become null. If quadriplegia is terrible, who could reasonably imagine living with paralysis?

If you get a chance to watch Pratchett’s documentary, don’t let the pro-assisted suicide language fool you. They’ll use words like “choice.” They make it look like they are not arguing life is worthless with a severe disability or illness. They say it can be worth it, that it’s all about the individual’s choice, all about whether life is worth it to that individual. But to let an individual make that choice instead of stopping them or trying to stop them is to agree that the choice is a valid one. And they, the pro-assisted suicide advocates, only consider it valid in the case of disability or illness. Indeed, that’s why they attempt to legitimize legalization of assisted suicide by assuring there would have to be some sort of “safeguards” to protect against rampant, non-justified suicides, as opposed to suicides that are justified, that is, the suicides committed by cripples.

Another word is “dignified,” indicated by the very name (Dignitas) of the Swiss institution that legally helps people commit suicide. “To live with dignity - to die with dignity” is the slogan of this non-profit suicide clinic. It may sound good, brave even. But it’s obvious to nearly all disabled people (at least those who blog) that the slogan implies you cannot live with dignity with a disability or illness. Simple as that; don’t let them explain it away as if it’s not clearly implied.

Another aspect of the documentary that struck me was the quite normal quality of the featured Dignitas’ clients’ disabilities. As I’ve noted before, normal doesn’t mean good or healthy, so I don’t mean to say the Dignitas clients were being wimpy. However, they suffer from maladies like motor neurone disease and MS. Those are some of the worst illnesses, and I don’t blame the clients for wanting to die. But many people have these diseases and keep on living with the emotional and physical support of their families. You would think assisted suicide, if it were morally acceptable, would only be acceptable in the most severe cases of excruciating pain.  Peter Smedley, the man in the documentary with MND, was arguably healthier at the moment right before his death than I am, even though the progression of his disease would eventually have taken an uglier course. Stephen Hawking’s MND has taken that course for 50 long years. Should he have considered killing himself a long time ago? Pro-assisted suicide advocates would have said, “Yes, as long as it is his decision,” never expecting him to have lived this long or better yet to have continued so well in his work.

Let’s think about the “safeguards” mentioned earlier. Certainly, not all should have access to assisted suicide, so the death advocates say. If a man with MS or MND can legitimately commit suicide, can a man with spinal muscular atrophy or muscular dystrophy do the same? If Terry Pratchett can commit suicide because he’s losing his mental capacity to Alzheimer’s disease, what other types of mental illness onset should be acceptable reasons for killing yourself?

In making those decisions, we would be officially passing judgment on the worthiness of all disabled people’s lives. We would be saying that, if you have SMA, feel free to kill yourself; you have good reason to. If you will soon suffer from mental retardation, feel free to hurry up and end your life while you can still give informed consent. You don’t have to, but you can.