Taylor fought her case on the premise that all Canadians should have the
choice of assisted dying. But choice is contextual, and the choices we
make can shift based on how vulnerable we feel. Shame, loneliness and
anxiety about whether the support will be there as our bodies grow more
disabled — all are factors that affect our decision-making. I re-read
Taylor’s account as less hopeful than I initially realized. She was
fearful that her tight network of supporters — including her church
community — would irreparably loosen.
The Supreme Court’s
confirmation that Canadians have the constitutional right to choose
physician-assisted dying that followed Taylor’s death in 2013 has
launched me, and other members of the disability community I work with
as a researcher and ally, into a particular trajectory of anticipatory
grief. Assisted dying is presented to us as a choice. But the proposed
Bill C-14, the act to decriminalize medically assisted dying, stipulates
that the choice is only available to competent adults. Others, like
intellectually disabled people or people with psychiatric disabilities,
can’t access this choice.
But even “competent” adults are at risk. They may choose to end their lives for fear of what lies ahead. The very real threats of institutionalization that disabled people face regularly — time spent on psychiatric wards, in group homes, in nursing homes — loom large. Their choices may be laced with anxiety about being absorbed into medical systems that too often frame disabled lives as undesirable.
I don’t begrudge Taylor’s pioneering advocacy. I remember her fondly. Yet, I realize that as Canadians, we are putting a lot of time and consideration into crafting laws that will support people in hastening death. Yet, there is room for more thought about how disability is received in our communities and what this means for our end-of-life decisions. Instead of falling into a trap where we equate disability with suffering, we can focus our energy on radically supporting and desiring disabled people’s lives as we navigate the outcomes of vulnerability and grapple with how we collectively choose to care with, and for, each other.
Chelsea Temple Jones teaches in the School of Disability Studies at Ryerson University.