January 19, 2006

Suicide Beyond The Question of Choice

Polls suggest nearly a 50/50 split regarding state sanctioned suicide.

For some the issue appears to be the bias toward ableism, for others it is about the choosing to die with dignity.

No matter where your views fall, "physician assisted suicide" could just as easily be called "government enforced death." Your opinion on the subject most likely depends on the knowledge and background you brought to it. Metaphorically speaking, the frame you place the issue in depends on the picture brought into the store.

The presumption of informed choice when considering state sanctioned suicide implies a level of political and personal insight which may not always be present. Clearly, there is little, if any, instruction available to teach people how to live with a disability but state sanctioned suicide is suddenly making headlines across the globe.

What does this say about our priorities -- both personally and politically?

Even the views of disability advocates differ, sometimes greatly. But the issue goes much deeper than personal preferences in death. If we allow the emphasis of the discussion, debate and resulting policy decisions to center around death with dignity, rather than quality of life, we run the risk of framing ourselves out of the debate.

Rather than being a question of choice, the issue may be one of emphasis. If all, or at least most, of what people hear is death talk, the necessary parallel discussion of learning how best to live with illness or disability is drowned out, or worse yet, never occurs -- at least in any meaningful way. Our minds only absorb so much. And most of what we let in tends to make the cut only because it confirms what we already believe.

Labeling state sanctioned suicide a choice simply makes the bitter pill easier to swallow, much like changing laws to let corporate pollution run amok under the pseudonym of the "Clean Air Act."

By focusing our attention on the end of life debate, the energy we, and others, could devote to improving the overall quality of life, either for oneself or for society, is automatically shifted, if not spent. We simply can't do both adequately. As much as we'd like to believe otherwise there are still only 24 hours in a day. By putting our attention in one place the impact we have somewhere else automatically suffers.

Now imagine, if you will, the changes which could occur if the focus, time, energy and resources brought to helping people die was instead devoted to better preparing us for life with illness or disability. Imagine a world in which making our society useable for all was given the same attention. I doubt we'd recognize the landscape. When looked at from this perspective, whatever personal preferences we individually may hold regarding how we wish to die, seem secondary.

End-of-life choices informed by bigotry rather than understanding can hardly be considered progress.

From a disability rights perspective, I can't help but wonder, what prejudices about disability motivate the architects of so-called "right-to-die" legislation? In what ways does "government-enforced-death" reflect assumptions about the value of disabled people in society? What do we, as individuals and as a sociey, stand to lose by further codifying negative notions about disability, largely based on unfounded fears, by passing them into law?

Tough questions. As they should be.

Lawmakers, pundits and pollsters seem to be more concerned about asking whether or not state sanctioned suicide laws can get the votes or past the courts, than they do about posing the most difficult -- and important -- questions.

As the debate heats up again in California, and in Congress, let's make sure we do.

Posted by Lawrence Carter-Long

Posted on January 19, 2006