Advocating for our neighbours with disabilities
The first speaker said it well: "The purpose of this symposium is to plant a flag on the frozen landscape of Canada’s body politic."
I was at an event organized by two national advocacy organizations for persons with disabilities. Presenters spoke with deep concern and legitimate fear over proposed legal changes in Canada that would remove protection they need.
Just three short years after euthanasia was legalized, one of the key safeguards regulating it – that it would only be available to people whose death was "reasonably foreseeable" – is being abandoned. A Quebec court ruled the criterion unconstitutional. While usually a government defends recently passed legislation, the federal government is now rushing to drop the criterion.
With "reasonably foreseeable" removed, the only objective criterion to qualify for euthanasia is that your condition be "irremediable." With this change the state would forfeit its role of protection for persons with disabilities.
Why do they need this protection? Imagine that someone looks at you and says that if they had your disability, they’d rather be dead. One person told me this has really happened to her many times. What is being communicated to her? That she is better off dead.
Rather than a medical system that defaults to protect and preserve life, now under the guise of choice the onus is shifting against her to justify why she should live. The foul message is clear: Why is she not opting for MAID (to make it more palatable, euthanasia is now medical assistance in dying or MAID).
What happens to our medical system and its patients when others think death would be her preferred option? And this isn’t just an isolated view within institutions. It’s neighbours judging neighbours – and in the worst possible way.
As one panellist asked, "What would be the outcry if death was offered to others on the basis of their personal characteristic?" Protected characteristics include disability and also race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnic origin and others.
The power of the strong over the vulnerable is manifest in societies when the state neglects its role of protection.
Another advocate said the worst place for her is in emergency rooms at hospitals. How do staff respond to a person in a wheelchair who has difficulty communicating orally? (She is a professor and writes extremely well.) With a mild case of pneumonia, for which I would be treated without question, she is asked if she wants euthanasia.
What we all seek, including vulnerable persons, is "a safe, welcome harbour at the end of each day," as one of the speakers said.
Will Canadians step up? During the symposium I was deeply moved. I thought of the parable of the Good Samaritan who himself was deeply moved by compassion to advocate and care for another who was left for dead – a life not worth saving in the eyes of those who passed by.
I was also reminded of advocates like Ivan Illich, a 20th-century thinker who emphasized the revolutionary nature of this parable – especially its personal aspect.
In the era when Jesus told the parable, people were only responsible to care for others from their own group (clan, tribe, nation). Ethics and ethnicity were intertwined. But Jesus taught listeners to care for the individual in need regardless of who they were.
The parable does not simply put forward a universal principle to care for those in need, says Illich, that can be met by hospitals on our behalf. Your neighbour is one whose path you cross – it is personal.
While Illich is right about the personal aspect – our call to come alongside our vulnerable neighbours to ensure they find safe harbour at the end of each day – the social and political aspects are also crucial. It is also in community with others and as equals before God that we respond to individual persons, not merely the abstract need. Following Jesus, we must also speak truth to the powers of death positioning themselves over vulnerable lives.
Protecting persons with disabilities is personal, social and political. As the debate looms and protections are being abandoned, will we leave it to others or will we appeal to our government to ensure protections for persons with disabilities?
Bruce J. Clemenger is President of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. Please pray for our work and support us at www.TheEFC.ca/Donate or toll-free 1-866-302-3362.