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When My High School Class Discussed Assisted Suicide and Disability

I’m a 17-year-old junior in high school, and I’m currently enrolled in a course called Peace and Justice.  I attend a private Catholic school, and it’s a required theology course for all juniors. Every day, we debate and discuss relevant topics concerning social justice and have the opportunity to share our opinions on the subject matter with the class.  Many people choose to remain quiet and keep their opinions to themselves, but I prefer to share my opinions with my classmates.

I was paralyzed from the neck down when I was 8 years old, but I’ve been fortunate enough to have recovered the ability to walk and partial use of my arms and right hand. I love my life, and I’m an incredibly positive person. Sure, I have my days, but I’m quite happy with what I’ve been able to accomplish in my life.

I’ve struggled with my faith as a Christian because of my disorder, acute flaccid myelitis (AFM).  Even though I’m happy and radiate positivity, I still struggle to understand why God constantly allows bad things to happen to good people — in all aspects of life, not just developing a life-changing illness or disability. Because of this struggle, my opinions concerning the topics I discuss in Peace and Justice and in this article are not related to religion in any way.

The other day, the topic of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide came up. Although these terms are often used interchangeably, there is a major difference: euthanasia is when a doctor physically administers a lethal drug to the patient, whereas physician-assisted suicide is when a doctor prescribes or makes available a lethal drug to the patient, but the patient takes it on their own accord.

As a person with a physical disability, this topic is close to my heart.  I immediately raised my hand and said to my class: “Nobody in this room — I would hope, at least — would encourage their able-bodied friend to die by suicide if they approached them and said they wanted to kill themselves. So why does the conversation change when that person has a disability or health condition? I think the cause of this glorifying and accepting euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide is caused by the misconception that people with disabilities cannot live ‘normal,’ happy lives. Like most of you know, I have a disability, and I don’t believe my life is any less valuable because of that.”

One of my classmates responded to my point by saying she understands where a person with a disability or health condition is coming from if they wish to go through with euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide because the person might be experiencing the “negative effects” of their condition. I can completely understand why an able-bodied person would have this view, because it’s almost impossible to completely understand what living with a disability is like if you don’t have one.

Another one of my classmates responded by saying they think euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide would be all right if the patient underwent several psychiatric evaluations beforehand to determine if they were “in the right state of mind to be making such a big decision.” I was already thinking this, but someone said it before I could: “You’re not in the ‘right’ state of mind if you’re considering your own death.”

I didn’t get a chance to respond to the first person, but my written response is as follows:

Able-bodied people who are considering suicide are definitely experiencing the “negative effects” of their situation, too.  But does society justify that as a valid reason to end their lives? We don’t, and we shouldn’t, but my point comes back to the same question: why does the conversation change when that person has a disability or health condition?

Being disabled or having a health condition is not the only thing that could possibly cause someone to become suicidal or depressed. Many able-bodied people experience awful tragedies that lead them to depression and/or suicide, such as losing a loved one. In my experience, people with disabilities sometimes learn to appreciate life more because we learn just how valuable life truly is. However, suicide rates are high in the disability community, so we need to keep talking about how to support those who are struggling.

I do think many people with newly acquired disabilities — like myself and a few of my disabled friends — go through a short-term lull, a grieving process where we miss our “old life.” And I think that’s perfectly normal. We can’t be expected to have our lives suddenly change and not miss how things used to be. However, for many people this lull eventually goes away.

I experienced my own “lull” beginning two years after I got AFM (between 2012 and 2014). My life had changed drastically, and as a 10-year-old little girl, all I wanted was for things to be how they used to be.  But now, as a 17-year-old girl in 2019, I’ve learned to appreciate my life for all the value it holds. I honestly don’t even think about my disability often. Of course I know I’m disabled, but I don’t wake up and immediately think about how much it sucks. I have my bad days like everyone else, but I know my life is full of potential and value.

The key point here: disabled people’s lives are just as valuable as everyone else’s. If you know someone who is considering going through with euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide, please help them understand they are loved, they are not a burden, and their life is valuable.

Image Credits: Sarah Todd Hammer