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  • Writer's pictureErin Clark

An Act of Imagination

Updated: Nov 30, 2020

CW: Medical assistance in dying, eugenics, suicidal ideation, ableism

(pieces of this statement have been submitted to the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs and my member of Parliament.)

Canada has an assisted dying law called MAiD. In brief, if your death is ‘reasonably foreseeable’ you can request medically assisted death. Sometime after the MAiD law was passed, two people with disabilities petitioned the court in Quebec to approve their medically assisted deaths even though they weren’t foreseeable. The judge ruled that it was unconstitutional to limit the law only to those who were dying. It restricted their autonomy, it was said.

So an amendment was proposed that explicitly names disabled people — and only disabled people — as having the right to request medically assisted death, even if they are not dying of their condition.

The logic of the bill itself cries prejudice. If the measures in place are so safe and ensure that no one would be ushered to an early death inappropriately, then why name disability explicitly as an exception? Why not say ALL Canadians, regardless of whether their death is reasonably foreseeable, have the right to request medically assisted death, and then let the procedure apply to all? If the current bill restricts the autonomy of disabled people, it restricts the autonomy of all people, and violates the constitutional rights of all Canadians. Because disabled people are… people. Citizens. Human. We are not a fundamentally separate category from non disabled Canadians. What applies to us, could —at any moment— apply to all.

There is a profound contradiction between the ethos of suicide prevention, in which the circumstances a person is in are considered the problem and worth supporting and solving, and the idea that a disability is a fair reason to want to die, no support neccesary. Which society are we? Do we intervene or not?

The law requires a waiting period, because we recognize that suicidal ideation often occurs like a wave, that it has a transient quality, that it passes. We intervene in the circumstances that give rise to the desire to die. We consider the state of mind as changeable, AND the circumstances as changeable. In the case of disability, however, undue focus is given to the state of the body, which is considered unchangeable (a fallacy cemented into the minds of the nondisabled). Intolerable suffering is not immutably written into the code of our conditions.

In fact, those of us with the means to properly support ourselves are generally robustly pleased with our lives, regardless of the severity of our impairments. Should only wealthy disabled Canadians have the right to fully live?

I know that people like to think that sufficient support for the disabled Canadian is already there, already functioning, that anyone who wishes to die has already been taken care of and therefore their suffering is coming from a truly profound existential crisis that only death can solve. But this is simply NOT true.

As a person with a disability who has travelled the world, I can tell you that Canada does not support its disabled population as well as it likes to think. We have trouble accessing education, which leads to lack of employment. Other barriers to employment exist regardless of education — including the reality that it is still legal to pay disabled persons below the minimum wage.

There are solvable, but unregarded issues with accessible and affordable housing. We are dealing with unethical issues with the income support we do receive -- issues which are actual violations of the human rights accords signed on our behalf -- and that were brought into harsh light when COVID relief made clear the government considers a basic living wage for the average Canadian to be $2000 a month. Disabled Canadians pointed out that we have been expected to live off of less than half of that and are not allowed to supplement it in any way. In response, Canadians who receive the disability tax credit (which is not all disabled Canadians) were awarded a one time payment of $600. The government knows we are forced into poverty, which is a greater cause of unendurable suffering than our disabilities.

We are similarly forced into impossible decisions on a regular basis. Choices about getting married or being partnered, choices about living independently in our communities, are not truly our free and autonomous choices when the circumstances we live under require us to forgo marriage so we can retain our benefits or force us into institutions because we are denied community support. None of these policies, legislations or attitudes toward us respect our autonomy, our desire to thrive, our ability to contribute or our right to life.

Imagine if the special permission were being granted to people on the basis of their sexual orientation? What if the law stated that impoverished people could request medically assisted death based on the intolerable suffering of the prejudice they encounter? We acknowledge that their suffering is intolerable. But we don't agree that the solution is for them to die. What message does this send to society and to disabled people to say that the law recognizes that the solution to the suffering of a disabled --specifically and only a disabled person-- is solved by their death.

In the rare media coverage, the points being made by many disability advocates are reduced to the single concept that ‘they are concerned it sends a message that our lives are less valuable.’ We are not concerned. We know that the value of our lives is literally up for debate. That is, itself, the point.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the Federal Government’s top concern right now. Everything should be done to keep Canadians safe and healthy. But, that should include us, the disabled. If we are to be named explicitly in legislation, why not to protect us from discriminatory triaging practices? Why not with concern for the impact lockdown restrictions have on our ability to maintain independence and avoid the very institutions that are currently the locus of the pandemic? This bill should not be a pressing matter at this time (where it is being rushed through the process for a decision by December 18th), in the midst of our distinct vulnerability, where the risks and and restrictions and pressures of COVID-19 are being born more greatly by the disabled population.

Most days, my art is a personal joy. I do it because it’s fun, because I feel designed to do it in that way that transcends wondering why. I write, I film, I am. I’m so happy I get to spend my life in creation. It feels personal and intimate and thorough.

But at times like these, I understand abruptly what it can mean beyond me. Creating disabled characters and writing disabled stories where we are not suffering, not existing only to infuse others with wisdom before our poignant death, takes on a sense of urgency.

Legislation is about predicting and shaping the future, it’s an act of imagination. Bill C-7 reveals what is not being imagined by the people who have the power to decide that my life isn’t viable. I create because I have always wanted to live. Because I have been fortunate and empowered to live fully. Because I want true autonomy, and pathways to fulfillment — not death — for all disabled Canadians.

Further resources.

A petition to STOP Bill C-7

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