Reflecting on doctor-assisted euthanasia
I recently watched the film Me Before You. It is a well-acted romantic drama about a quadriplegic and his caregiver who fall in love. (Romance movies aren’t normally my thing, but this job does involve spending right to 10 hours on a plane most weeks). The disabled man in this film had decided to pursue euthanasia, before meeting his young female caregiver. He ultimately decides to follow through on that decision, despite her pleas to reverse course. He tragically chooses to take his life right at the moment when he has most clearly shown both his capacity for joy and his ability to positively impact his surroundings. Everyone except him sees the value in his life — and his death comes across as bitingly pointless.
As I think about the new realities we face here in Canada with legal euthanasia, this movie presented me with another opportunity to reflect on what euthanasia means at the concrete and personal level. We heard during the recent parliamentary debate on this issue that it is quite common for those who become disabled to initially experience suicidal thoughts. Many (though not all) come out of that eventually, having adapted to their circumstances, and come to appreciate that they can still live a full life. There is a challenging transition involved for people who become disabled, but most turn that corner.
Me Before You has been criticized by disability rights advocates for suggesting that “disability is tragedy and disabled people are better off dead.” These are important criticisms; but, it may also be possible to draw the opposite conclusion from the film. The clearest tragedy in the story is that the genuine thoughtfulness, charm, vision, and reflectiveness of the quadriplegic man makes the continuing value of his life transparently obvious even to the most skeptical. Despite all that, he remains haunted by could-have-been’s.
Canada’s new law on euthanasia imposes a 10-day waiting period for those requesting it. That waiting period can actually be waived under certain circumstances. The law only applies to those for whom death is “reasonably foreseeable” — although it’s not entirely clear whether that would effectively exclude anyone. Ten days is not nearly long enough for someone to turn the corner from initial suicidal thoughts to a realistic appreciation of their new but different potential. The character in Me Before You almost, but not quite, turns that corner in six months.
Disabled people have accomplished so much to make our country and our world better: people like former Conservative cabinet minister Steven Fletcher, globally renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, our Paralympic athletes (including local medal winner Ross Wilson), and my little cousin who lives with Down Syndrome and who brightens everywhere she goes with her infectious smile.
We, as a society, and as Parliamentarians, can do more to respect and value the contributions of disabled people. Whether or not it comes through in this film, the value that disabled people bring to our communities could not be clearer.
Garnett Genuis is the member of Parliament for Sherwood Park-Fort Saskatchewan. He can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 780-467-4944. His office is located in the Park Place Professional Centre, Unit No. 214. Genuis was first elected in October 2015.
Published: Thursday, October 6, 2016