Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Malicious Whispers and Dangerous Trends

Occasionally, I will read something that another person has said or written and I think, "I just wrote about the same ideas last week!  Are some of us wired to the same computer?!"

The new summer edition of Abilities Magazine features an article I wrote about a trend that I began to observe over the past year - the title of the article is "The New Face of Eugenics: The Shocking New Trend Toward Devaluing People With Disabilities".  Here's a snippet:


In 2004, I recall telling a neighbour that my son Nicholas was very ill because of his severe disabilities and we had moved him to our hospital palliative care service.  “Oh”, she nodded sympathetically, “I remember when we had to put our dog down, it was so hard”.  I stopped sipping my coffee and blinked.  
I am reminded of that conversation because recently, I have observed a pernicious trend toward labeling some people not worthy of being considered human.  And it’s not just insensitive neighbours - it’s Princeton University bioethicists and animal rights activists Peter Singer and Geoff MacMahon.  They use IQ as a yardstick for human worth and argue that people with severe cognitive disabilities have roughly the same intrinsic value as a dog or a pig.  Now ethicists Francesca Minerva and Alberto Guilini have weighed in on the question of what kind of life constitutes personhood in a recent issue of The Journal of Medical Ethics.  A right to life, they say, is based on a person’s ability to perceive meaning in their own existence.  “Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life.”  They use this argument to justify “after-birth abortion” (infanticide) in cases where, due to disability or even changed family economic circumstances, the killing of newborns is justified because infants have no appreciation of life or the loss of it.  Duke University philosopher Walter Sinnott-Armstrong makes an equally frightening case in another recent issue of the same journal.  He seeks to prove that killing in itself is not wrong. Rather, he maintains, the wrong is in the removal of abilities from another.  This line of reasoning allows him to justify using people with severe cognitive disabilities who require life-support technologies, but who are not brain dead, as organ donors.  Each of these arguments is frightening, but taken together, they pose a real threat to everyone, especially people with disabilities and those who love them. 
We should pay attention to these journal articles because ideas developed by philosophers and ethicists have a way of trickling down, over time, into the hearts and minds of everyday people.

Today, I happened on the blog of the esteemed disability activist and academic, Catherine Frazee.  Here is bit of what she wrote:

I’ve had many occasions to voice my outrage at Robert Latimer’s crime, and my horror at the wave of support that rose as his arrest and multiple trials turned through the cycles of front page news. Tracy is 19 years dead. Robert is again a free man, after 7 years in prison, and 2 ½ years on day parole.
I have no desire to rekindle the flame of this man’s still unrepentant posture that ending Tracy’s life was a blameless act. My quarrel here is not with a Saskatchewan farmer, or an Ontario mother, or any other horribly misguided parent seeking to end the life of a disabled child. My quarrel is with the clichés and platitudes that both foster and condone a very particular homicidal impulse. It is a preposterous notion that Tracy’s life did not conform to the law of nature that Robert somehow epitomizes.  The simplistic morality of pitting the “law of nature” against the “law of a nation” – the core assertion of Global’s Taking Mercy – must be exposed for what it is: a fundamentally eugenic rhetoric.
The Global Television special "Taking Mercy" to which Frazee refers aired in March of this year.  The show profiled Robert Latimer and others who defend the right of parents to murder on the basis of "compassionate euthanasia for the severely disabled."  
There are deeply concerning shifts taking place in society whereby a 'perfect storm' of threats are increasingly making it a dangerous time to be a person with a disability.....Global's programming uncritically provided a platform for perpetuating profoundly devaluing and damaging views without regard for (the) bigger picture or providing opportunity for people with disabilities and their families to provide a different perspective.
There is something happening in society when people who are watching the same puzzling picture begin to simultaneously and in isolation, figure it out.  The consensus amongst us, I believe, is that anyone who has a disability or loves someone with a disability better be on the lookout for these dangerous attitudes.  Because we can't afford not to - it's a question of life and death.  



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