Last Friday, the Supreme Court of Canada overturned s. 14 and s. 241 of the Criminal Code, as they pertain to physicians assisting the death of terminally suffering patients. (My friend Susan Toth has a good review of the decision posted here for more background. The full court judgment is available here.)
There are some who argue that this decision devalues the lives of people living with disabilities. The logic goes like this: by explicitly affirming that a person suffering from a chronic and untreatable condition has the right to die with a physician’s assistance, the court is sending the message that a life of chronic disability is perhaps not worth living. Ergo the lives of individuals suffering from such debilitating conditions are worth less than the lives of everyone else. This is discriminatory, as it signals the devaluation of a human life for arbitrary reasons.
For a counter perspective, I’d like to propose a variant angle. At present, I am relatively able bodied, strong, and agile. As such, I possess a remarkably interesting option: I have the ability to end my own life at any time. There is no ultimate legal authority that can deny me the right of suicide, and this is true for as long as I live freely and independently. If — or, I should say, when — I find myself suffering in a terminal condition and lose a critical degree of my strength and mobility, I subsequently lose capacity to voluntarily end my own life. In a severe state, my choice to live or die is not really my own anymore, but completely in the hands of others (who are more or less compelled to keep me alive for as long as possible, regardless of the pain).
Therefore, instead of diminishing my humanness, granting me the option of suicide returns to me a right that my disability stole from me. It restores my innate right to choose existence. In this sense, restoring the option to die might be interpreted as rehumanizing, because it is an option that every other person in a non-terminal, non-palliative, non-chronic condition possesses by default. By no means am I compelled to exercise this option, but simply because the option is restored, I can once again live my life on the same basic premise as every other person: I’m alive right now because I choose to be.
Therefore, the right to a doctor-assisted suicide does not diminish the value or worth of a person with severe disabilities, rather it reestablishes a fundamentally intrinsic value that belongs to every living person.
By no means am I trying to speak on behalf of every person with a disability here. Far from it. This is only a personal analysis. When I suddenly find myself in a condition that permanently eliminates my basic human capacity to choose existence, I would be relieved to live in a society that continued to legally protect my ability to make my own decisions, even long after I physically lose the capacity to act on my decisions for myself.
Ability or disability has nothing to do with the value of a human life. A life is worth living as long as the person living it, whatever their condition, wishes to live.
In no way am I claiming that we’re perfect. There are so many issues we must seek to address. There are no laurels here upon which we might rest. But this Canada Day weekend, I am thankful to live in a country that, in principle and aim, respects and celebrates the origins, ethnicities, and cultures of others.
If national identity is defined by differentness, then the roots of self-definition depend on juxtaposition: we know who we are primarily because we know we are not ‘them.’ The limits of this course seem historically evident.
Contrarily, if love for my nation is founded on the knowledge that I am formed by my customs, traditions, and inheritance — and if I understand how indelibly these have shaped me — then I can begin to appreciate how the customs, traditions, and inheritance of others are equally vital.
Thus, inasmuch as I comprehend the importance of my cultural lineage in defining my own outlook and understanding, to celebrate my own country is to indeed celebrate the world. For we are, all of us, inhabitants of countries.