Bill C-7 devalues disabled, advocates say

By Michael Swan, The Catholic Register

[Toronto – Canadian Catholic News] – Blind, traumatized and unable to work, Amy Hasbrouck is still fighting a law she believes values disabled lives as less than the lives of the able-bodied.

Bill C-7, the expanded “medical assistance in dying” law, has passed in the House of Commons and is now under consideration in the Senate. If the upper chamber fails to pass the bill or sends it back to the Commons for further revision, the standard for who qualifies for voluntary euthanasia will be different in Quebec than the rest of the country.

Hasbrouck hopes the Senate lets the bill fall. “As a society, we have a policy to prevent suicides,” she argues. “Except in the case of medical aid in dying.”

The prospect of different standards in different parts of the country is less than ideal, but it bothers Hasbrouck less than a fast track to euthanasia even when death is not reasonably foreseeable. Without the “reasonably foreseeable” criterion, struck down by a Quebec judge, every disabled person is now a candidate for a medicalized, early exit, she said.

By definition, everybody who qualifies for medically-provided euthanasia is disabled, according to Hasbrouck.

“When you get sick you are going to be (disabled). You’re not going to have the same kinds of options that non-disabled people have.”

Under those daunting circumstances, society offers the option of killing yourself quickly with the aid of a doctor.

“It’s an inequitable application of suicide prevention, based on the idea that life with a disability is a fate worse than death,” said Hasbrouck, who directs the national disability rights organization Not Dead Yet.

Anybody whose suffering can be defined as emotional, psychological or physical — categories that apply to almost all disabled people — can be assessed for medically-provided euthanasia/ assisted suicide. But a doctor who hears the same complaints from a teenager suffering a breakup or a young Indigenous person living in poverty would immediately opt for suicide prevention, psychotherapy and social supports, said Hasbrouck.

The law itself sends a message to disabled people, said King’s University College disability studies professor Jeff Preston.

“We have got to understand that we live in this culture that routinely, every day, is telling disabled people in very overt ways and also some very subversive ways that their lives don’t have value, that they are suffering, that it’s not worth it, that they are a burden on people,” Preston said.

Having lived his whole life in a wheelchair, Preston has heard those messages loud and clear.

“Oh geez, my wife — her life is different because she’s married to somebody with a disability. My parents lives were different because they raised a boy with a physical disability. There were all these challenges,” he said. “It’s hard not to see yourself as the cause of these problems.”

Preston is not particularly impressed by language in Bill C-7 that proclaims medical practitioners must “ensure that the person has been informed of the means available to relieve their suffering,” including counselling, mental health and disability support services, community services and palliative care. None of that matters if disabled people can’t get the support they need, or they can’t get it without years of battling medical and welfare bureaucracies, or if supports only guarantee they remain below the poverty line.

Preston has no doubt people will opt for assisted death out of despair.

“If you’re willing to stand up in the House of Commons and vote to allow people to die, then you are now also responsible for similarly standing up to ensure that people have the things they need in order to live,” he said.

If the option for a dignified life isn’t on offer, then some family whose loved one opted for assisted death is going to sue, Preston predicts.

Disability rights lawyer Edgar-Andre Montigny does believe the new euthanasia/assisted suicide law creates an obligation to even up the choice between assisted suicide and life, but doubts that a court could actually enforce such a standard.

“We already have obligations under the CRPD (United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) that should require that at least nobody should be in a position where they’re thinking this (assisted death) should be an option because they don’t have services,” said Montigny.

It would be difficult to prove to a judge that any particular person chose meedically-assisted death because their life with a disability became impossible because of inadequate government supports, said the lawyer.

Hasbrouck believes that it became a legal question the moment assisted suicide became a legally defined and legislated right in Canada. Courts will have to decide “that all lives have equal value, whether or not it’s a disabled life, whether or not the person considers themselves disabled. Disabled lives have equal value,” she said. “Why is it that disabled people get this special treatment — where we get assisted dying, where non-disabled people who are suicidal get suicide prevention?”

Nearly 14,000 Canadians have been legally euthanized since 2016.