Thoughts on the 'Right
to Die with Dignity'
By Cheryl Marie Wade
Whenever I hear the phrases "right to die with dignity" and "quality of life"
I think, uh oh. I know once again the A.B.s are having a conversation about
me, without me. I watch the news shows, waiting for one Crip activist to have
her say, one Gimp, whose wholeness is in question, to be given an opportunity
to offer some real expert information. I wait through several incarnations.
The grand debaters bandy many precious words. They call on some of my personal
fave raves like "freedom of choice" and "dignity". Who, they ask, could be
against these things? Who, they ask, would deny these things to their fellow
citizens? No one who believes in the great principles upon which this great
democracy was founded, right?
Unh uh. I'm not buying it. As an aging, female Cripple who lives with pain and
in poverty, I know too well the value society places on me. Every day I am
assaulted by images that degrade me, that deem me a burden, a tragedy, that
question the quality of my life and the worthiness of my existence. I live in
a society that more and more forces me to fight for basic health care, that
forces me to put the majority of my limited physical resources into securing
my survival. I live in a society that in every way imaginable tells me I
should not want to live. And now they want to offer me the dignity of having
the right to choose to be put out of my misery by a licensed physician. At the
risk of sounding paranoid, I suspect my best interests do not reside at the
heart of this matter.
One of the things that disturbs me most deeply, besides my exclusion from the
so-called debate regarding "assisted suicide", is the fact that rarely are the
underlying values and assumptions fueling this quest ever examined or even
questioned. The desire to establish a constitutional right to die is built
upon a foundation of belief that the damaged/difficult and/or dying body is
worthless, that the experiences of living with the damaged/difficult and/or
dying body are undignified. Dignity. That word.
To me, what it all gets down to is bodily fluids. Okay, that's a tad
flippant, but I really do think it's an important part of the story. Nature at
its most unruly. Our very human essence is so damned undignified. And so
uncontrollable. We spend most of our life working like fiends to maintain the
illusion that we are in control, that we can tame and tidy nature. Let's face
it: nature always has the last laugh. Nowhere does the old girl laugh louder
than with disability and death.
God forbid we human beings should ever have to get up close and personal with
our unwieldy, messy, smelly humanness. In every way possible, this culture's
rules and values distance us from the realities of our own bodies in all their
glorious imperfection. Just flick on the TV any time of the day or night and
you'll be bombarded with messages about the necessity of looking perfect and
smelling better. It's presented not as an option, but an obligation. Of course
we want to hasten death; of course we want to make it easier for Cripples to
die. Out damn spot. Out.
I don't think it's just coincidence that this urgent, zealous drive to give us
more ways to opt out of life comes at a time when more and more of us are
visible, living in community, being "in the face", so to speak, of able-bodied
assumptions about normal. And not just the us that can almost pass as AB, but
those of us whose bodies are wildly uncontrollable, we of the drooling,
spazzing, claw-handed variety of Cripple. And instead of trying to fade into
the nooks and crannies as good Cripples of the past were taught to do, we
blast down the main streets in full view, we sit slobbering at the table of
your favorite restaurant, we insist on sharing your classroom, your workplace,
your theater, your everything.The comfort of keeping us out of sight and out
of mind behind institutional walls is being taken away. And because there is
no way for good people to admit just how bloody uncomfortable they are with
us, they distance themselves from their fears by devising new ways to erase us
from the human landscape, all the while deluding themselves that it is for our
And of course these fears that fuel the right-to-die movement are fed by
economics. The high cost of Cripple maintenance and slow death. Limited
resources and yada yada. Limited resources? As a society, we seem to have no
problem paying for what we want; there are no limited resources when it comes
to those things we deem of value. Unfortunately, our society's priorities are
out of whack. America belches out billions for stealth bombers and rations
health care; America pours its financial resources down the drain of bigger
prisons while cutting hot lunch programs for hungry children. We shouldn't be
surprised that we're on the hit list. All in keeping with the good ole
American love affair with the quick fix. So much easier to kill something than
to care for it.
As someone who's spent most of my life on the receiving end of one kind of
medical treatment or another, who's been probed and pried by more doctors than
I can count, I can say from sad experience that when it comes to disability
the medical profession ain't got a clue. Doctors are the last folks, as a
group, I think oughta have more power to do me harm. It's not that I think
docs are, by nature, a particularly vicious breed; it's just their training.
What should we expect from folks who are taught that to heal means to fix or
eradicate? If you can't cure it, bury it. Chronic illness, disability, the
slow train of dying just don't make for a comfortable fit.
My wariness about granting doctors more power over life and death isn't just
because of the raw deal I've had personally. I know history. The 200,000+
disabled people killed in Germany as prologue to the Holocaust weren't
slaughtered by goose-stepping brownshirts. Unh uh. They were starved to death
and lethally injected out of their misery by nice professional men in clean
white coats, men who'd sworn to uphold the Hippocratic oath, that same oath
about healing that the doctors pushing for assisted suicide in 1997 USA have
sworn to uphold. Even with the glaring spotlight of historical perspective,
the murder of our ancestors is held separate and unequal to the murder of the
six million that followed. Not one of those doctors has been called a war
criminal. We were and still are, after all "special circumstances."
If only Americans weren't so confident "it couldn't happen here," maybe we'd
be safer. There are few things more dangerous than the arrogance of assuming
you're incapable of behaving inhumanely. Decent people don't commit inhumane
acts in good conscience, so in order to maintain the myth of enlightenment,
those acts must be recast in a positive light. Dropping the H-bomb on the
civilian population of Hiroshima moves from atrocity to "life-saving
necessity"; killing those we deem a burden becomes euthansia, mercy killing,
the relieving of undue suffering.
I have to admit I feel inadequate to express in a rational, reasoned way what
I understand in the deepest cell of my marrow to be a movement toward
genocide. But no matter how awkward or inarticulate we feel, no matter how
difficult it is to peel away the layers to get deep inside the truth of this
movement, we must do it. It is our obligation as the ancestors of this
country's future victims of the right to die.
Copyright 1997 by Cheryl Marie Wade. Cheryl Marie Wade is an activist and
award-winning writer-performer. Her videos include Vital Signs: Crip
Culture Talks Back, Self-Advocacy: Freedom, Equality and Justice for
All and Here: A Poetry Perfomance. You can contact her at 1613 Fifth
Street, Berkeley, CA 94710-1714 or send email to: GnarlyBone@aol.com