Disability cannot be grounds for voluntary euthanasia, UN officials say

By Christine Rousselle for CNA

Credit: Oleksandr Lysenko/Shutterstock

Washington D.C., Jan 27, 2021 / 04:17 pm (CNA).- A disability rights organization praised United Nations human rights experts for condemning voluntary euthanasia on the basis of disability.

On Monday, three UN human rights experts issued a joint statement condemning the “growing trend” of countries that extend legal assisted suicide to people who have disabilities, but who do not have a terminal condition.

They added that a disability “should never be a ground or justification to end someone’s life directly or indirectly, and that a government “[u]nder no circumstance” should help “a person with a disabling condition who is not dying to terminate their life.”

In response, Diane Coleman, president of the disability rights organization Not Dead Yet, praised the decision of UN officials.

“Every major U.S. national disability group that has taken a position on assisted suicide laws opposes them for the very compelling reasons expressed by the United Nations Office of Human Rights,” Coleman told CNA on Wednesday.

Throughout parts of western Europe, it is legal for a disabled person who is not terminally ill to request and receive euthanasia. Canada is currently considering Bill C-7, which would permit those who do not have a “reasonably foreseeable” death to receive euthanasia.

Coleman praised the UN officials for defending the dignity of persons with disabilities.

“As the statement says, ‘Disability should never be a ground or justification to end someone’s life directly or indirectly,’ and we strongly agree,” she told CNA.

Coleman noted that the statement did not mention that the terminally ill who seek to end their lives “primarily request assisted suicide because of disability-related concerns” such as the loss of autonomy.

“People with advanced terminal conditions are a subset of all people with disabilities,” said Coleman. “So I really think that the concerns raised by the U.N. Office of Human Rights apply across the board.”

The three UN experts who issued the joint statement are Gerard Quinn, Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities; Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights; and Claudia Mahler, Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons.

The UN’s human rights office said that bills extending euthanasia to persons with disabilities “would institutionalize and legally authorize ableism.”

Quinn, De Schutter, and Mahler warned that normalizing euthanasia for persons with disabilities who are not terminally ill would draw upon “ableist assumptions about the inherent ‘quality of life’ or ‘worth’ of the life of a person with a disability.”

“These assumptions, which are grounded in ableism and associated stereotypes, have been decisively rejected by the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities,” they said. “Disability is not a burden or a deficit of the person. It is a universal aspect of the human condition.”

Canada’s Bill C-7 was introduced in the country’s Parliament following the Quebec Superior Court’s 2019 ruling that the requirement of a “reasonably foreseeable death” to receive euthanasia was a violation of rights under the country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The two plaintiffs in the case, Jean Truchon and Nicole Gladu, were both diagnosed with disabling conditions that are not terminal. Truchon received euthanasia in April, 2020.

All countries with legal active euthanasia—where a doctor can legally end a patient’s life at their request—have ratified the 2006 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, or its optional protocol.

The three experts also said that the elderly or disabled “may feel subtly pressured to end their lives prematurely” on account of “attitudinal barriers as well as the lack of appropriate services and support.”

Poverty, too, plays a role, as “the proportion of people with disabilities living in poverty is significantly higher” than those without disabilities, they said.

“People with disabilities condemned to live in poverty due to the lack of adequate social protection can decide to end their lives as a gesture of despair,” they said. “Set against the legacy of accumulated disadvantages their ‘architecture of choice’ could hardly be said to be unproblematic.”

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