Dignicide

I went to my first conference on Physician-Assisted Suicide in 1988. It was an educational effort by a Legal Services Corporation national service center, on whose Board I served. The motives of the Center personnel who organized the conference were opposed to normalizing a practice seen as opposed to best interests of those whose legal interests were our focus: the medically dependent and disabled.

As conferences tend to be, it was earnest, sometimes compelling, talk. And in liquid modernity, talk, however logically compelling, rarely carries the day. PowerPoint arguably makes it worse, though TED and TedX seem to enhance talk a bit.

The day gets carried by story-telling. It’s a powerful combination when you can sell an audience of able-bodied bon vivants  that getting rid of their aging parents and disabled children promotes the parents’ and children’s autonomy and dignity, and thus makes you, the proponent, a virtuous person. That it frees up your inheritance (while one still remains), or removes a great financial and emotional burden from you, is (Of course! Heaven forfend! Perish the thought!) not the point at all (wink, wink).

[A] steady stream of uncritical coverage in the media continues to push the euthanasia movement along. Such coverage usually takes the form of TV documentaries that follow, and gently cheer, a disabled or terminally ill patient’s journey to the death chamber.

(Sohrab Ahmari, Wall Street Journal)

Finally, someone is telling a better, truer story. Liz Carr, an actress and activist “who suffers from a genetic disorder that prevents her from extending her muscles, among other impairments,” has staged “Assisted Suicide: The Musical” in London.

Much of “Assisted Suicide” involves Ms. Carr taking on her alter ego, a character named Documentary Liz. Film footage shows Documentary Liz living a humdrum disabled life, while a lachrymose melody plays and a narrator dourly describes the scene: “Liz feels trapped, imprisoned by her difficult circumstances. Liz has few freedoms, few choices on a day-to-day basis.”

Onstage, the real Ms. Carr rolls her eyes and provides a running commentary, acidly mocking the documentary clichés …

“Assisted suicide has become part of the narrative of death, of illness, of disability,” she says. That was the work of euthanasia proponents, who knew that “it takes 15 to 20 years to get social support and to get the culture to change—then you pass the law.”

(Sohrab Ahmari, Wall Street Journal)

The sketch of rebranding Assisted Suicide was very clever and knowing that it was a real exercise does not deflect from the truth – the campaign for Assisted Suicide (AS) is very well funded and slick. .There is a scene with flip charts, marker pens, and PR specialists trying to come up with the catchphrase to make suicide palatable. They come with: ‘Society is off the hook…I choose it as my free will and I’ll be brave,’ The idea linking freedom and choice with AS is sown.

(Eleanor Lisney at the Disability Visibility Project)

The main watchword of the euthanasia movement is dignity. The argument runs that disability, terminal illness, senility and the like rob it from their victims. Assisted suicide allows people in such circumstances to die on their own terms, before their conditions erase their sense of personhood. In making their pitch, some proponents use the portmanteau “dignicide”—dignified suicide—a coinage that comes in for much ridicule in Ms. Carr’s musical.

“We’ve lost the word ‘dignity’ to the concept of ‘death with dignity,’ ” says Ms. Carr. The truth, she insists, is that “your state of health, mental or physical, has no bearing on your dignity.”If voters and lawmakers take the view that dignity derives from good health and ability, then all sorts of weak and vulnerable people can be discarded.

The other slogan for euthanasia is self-determination. That phrase was used at least 97 times in the various government hearings that resulted in Belgium’s 2002 legalization, according to the religious-freedom advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom. Autonomy and self-determination are at the heart of the Western liberal project: Shouldn’t people have the choice of how and when they die?

Ms. Carr’s answer is: Whose choice? Whose determination?

“Even if you go to the doctor where assisted suicide is legal,” she says, “you don’t get it on demand. You have to jump through some hoops. The doctor will make the choice.” It’s a subtle but crucial point: “Legalizing euthanasia doesn’t empower you. It empowers doctors.” In the context of the modern welfare state, that means empowering agents of the government.

Legalization hides a dramatic action—the taking of life—behind the veil of the patient-doctor relationship, with all the power imbalances inherent in it.

The line between “exercising autonomy” and feeling goaded into assisted suicide is blurry, especially for vulnerable people who are already made to feel they are a burden. “We don’t applaud healthy people deciding to kill themselves in the name of autonomy,” Ms. Carr says. “We conveniently herald choice and autonomy as concepts that should be supported for people who are disabled and ill but not for everyone else.”

Assisted suicide isn’t ultimately about autonomy, Ms. Carr thinks. “It’s about fear of mortality,” which is harder to manage in an increasingly secular society. “Religion, certainly in the U.K., used to hold our fears and our discussions about death. That’s where we saw death, in church or in funerals, and that helped us and provided us with a way through.” She’s quick to add: “I say this as an atheist.”

(Sohrab Ahmari, Wall Street Journal)

I’m a purveyor of futile words. I’ve been involved in theater only very, very marginally, but it seems to me, unfortunately, that Assisted Suicide: The Musical might not travel well because Liz Carr, a known figure on British Television, may not travel well, and she’s the riveting star of the production.

Do we have an American version of Liz Carr?

* * * * *

“The truth is that the thing most present to the mind of man is not the economic machinery necessary to his existence; but rather that existence itself; the world which he sees when he wakes every morning and the nature of his general position in it. There is something that is nearer to him than livelihood, and that is life.” (G.K. Chesterton)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.