The Case for Our Lives

Harriet McBryde Johnson’s insightful article, “Unspeakable Conversations (Should I have been killed at birth? The case for my life.)” enriches me every time I read it.

The main issues of which Harriet writes include:

‘We should not make disabled lives subject to debate.’

‘who should have the burden of proof as to the quality of disabled lives’

‘What worries me most about the proposals for legalized assisted suicide is their veneer of beneficence — the medical determination that, for a given individual, suicide is reasonable or right. It is not about autonomy but about nondisabled people telling us what’s good for us.’

If people are ‘able’ to make a decision about their own life or death, that is their choice to make. For those with diminished rights, entitled people do not have the right to make the choice for them.

Harriet’s consistent vision for society is one which cares for all life, which doesn’t see lives like hers as expendable, which encourages all its members to achieve their fullest potential, which encourages voice to all its members.

She says:

‘choice is illusory in a context of pervasive inequality. Choices are structured by oppression. We shouldn’t offer assistance with suicide until we all have the assistance we need to get out of bed in the morning and live a good life. Common causes of suicidality — dependence, institutional confinement, being a burden — are entirely curable.’

McBryde is not arguing against suicide as an option, but for dealing logically with the primary issue issue of inequality first.

People are prevented from choosing to work when the society in which they live doesn’t legislate for adequate childcare.

People who live in societies where education isn’t free or available have restricted choices.

In many societies these situations are dealt with by law and choices are increased.

Yet how many societies place importance on providing paid care and access for dis-abled people so *their* choices are maximised?

How do we build compassionate societies which value and incorporate equality of choice when the practicalities of equality and maximisation of individual potential are subordinated to the entrenched needs and viewpoints of those most benefited by existing inequities? Some live blithely, thinking the issue will not affect them – yet many will experience dis-ability by accident or as a consequence of old age.

I accept acknowledgement of my own entitlement and systemic inequalities, and in solidarity with others, attempt to work through my individual, social, economic and political relationships in a context of justice and rights, rather than adding to a toxic ethos of dis-ablement which excludes, marginalises and deprivileges further those already excluded, deprivileged and marginalised by existing social, political and economic constructs which reinforce and protect the needs of advantaged groups at the expense of everyone else.

These constructs include racism, prejudice, bigotry, elitism, agism, sexism and ableism, all embedded in distorted ‘laws’ and unquestioning acceptance of present injustice. It is comfortable to be complacent about others’ rights when it is not our rights that are denied or our voices which are silenced – yet the presumption that some lives are more valuable than others leads inevitably to atrocities. Where there is discrimination, all who are knowingly silent are complicit and contribute to their own potential or actual enslavement.

Stephen Hawking says ‘I’m sure my disability has a bearing on why I’m well known. People are fascinated by the contrast between my very limited physical powers, and the vast nature of the universe I deal with.’

One wonders how Stephen would have progressed had his talent been for political theory and leadership in the vanguard of the ‘left’ if there is lack of accessibility to union and other ‘activist’ meetings.

How many Stephen and Stephanie Hawkings have been locked out of the revolutionary process to the detriment of solidarity because of precious champagne socialists for whom providing accessibility is contaminated with the ‘weak arguments’ of ‘identity politics’ and ‘social exclusion’?

Can a solidarity movement truly be described as such when it behaves in the same manner as the structures it claims to be critiquing?

We can’t change our skin but we can own it. When we speak from a position of power about others’ lives, it’s essential to recognise that as Aboriginal activist Leila Watson says:

‘If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.’