Trigger warning: this story contains discussion of eugenics and violence against disabled people.
Last year, a doctor at Labrador-Grenfell Health in St. Anthony, N.L. told Sheila Elson that her 25-year-old daughter Candice Lewis was dying, and offered to kill Lewis using Canada’s assisted dying laws. Elson immediately said no and is now complaining about the incident, accusing the doctor of being insensitive and pressuring her into conspiring to kill her daughter.
The CBC story refers to the proposed killing only as “assisted suicide,” but let’s be clear: if the doctor had gone through with euthanizing Lewis, it would have been murder. It is not suicide if the person themselves does not voluntarily choose to die.
The fact that this is not being treated as major national news is frankly outrageous. The doctor should be prosecuted for counseling murder or conspiracy to commit murder.
The story brings up all kinds of questions. Was there not adequate care available? Was the doctor even certain the young woman was dying, given that she is apparently still alive eight months later? Is someone going to investigate whether this has happened before? The CBC story (the only news outlet that appears to have reported the story at this time) does not say whether there is a response from the College of Physicians of Newfoundland and Labrador.
More significantly, the fact that the conversation even took place perfectly demonstrates why the capitalist system cannot be trusted to regulate assisted suicide. Elson valued her daughter’s life and told the doctor no. But some parents of disabled children do not value those lives. Some parents in that position might have listened to the doctor and taken it as permission to have their child killed.
Don’t believe me? In the UK, ninety per cent of pregnant people whose fetuses test positive for Down syndrome will decide to get an abortion so that they don’t have to parent a child with developmental delays. Ninety. Percent.
To be clear, this is not an argument against reproductive freedom. However, the misunderstanding and devaluing of people with Down syndrome is horrifying.
The reality is, many parents see their disabled children primarily as a burden. They put their own feelings before their child’s needs, attempt to “cure” to their child’s neurodivergence, or they do not respect their child’s boundaries or need for basic privacy or consent. Disabled adults — with all kinds of disabilities — are frequently treated as perpetual children, incapable of making their own decisions or being the authority on their own needs. These issues have been covered over and over again by disabled activists.
These attitudes are clearly exhibited by the doctor in this case, who had the conversation with the mother instead of the daughter, disregarded the fact that the daughter was within earshot, and clearly had no interest in the daughter’s input.
Parents who are not like Elson, who see their children only as burdens because they are extra work to take care of — because our individualistic society does not give them enough support, and because their children are unlikely to bring their family prestige or economic power — might not see their child’s inherent value. If a parent also does not respect the need for their child’s consent, they might start to listen to a doctor who makes a suggestion like this.
This is a really difficult topic, but it needs to be acknowledged. People with disabilities talk about this among ourselves frequently, while others are often afraid to touch it.
While in theory, Canada’s assisted dying laws only allow for assisted dying when there is informed consent of the patient, there is absolutely no doubt that if Elson had said yes to the doctor, they would have gotten away with murdering Candice Lewis.
The assisted dying law itself is not to blame. The problem is the huge amount of power and unquestioning trust that is put in doctors, combined with a complete disregard for the humanity and inherent worth of disabled people.
There is absolutely no doubt that the way the system is set up, at some point someone will abuse it and kill someone who is not ready to die. It is the natural end of a societal attitude towards disabled people that says we are not worthy.
Image: Flickr/Quinn Dombrowski