Fundamental Human Rights: An Interview with Jim Derksen

[28 October 1997]

A Personal Perspective

In Quebec some disability organizations used the Charles Blais killing to focus attention on deficits in support services? Is this appropriate?

I think it is a fundamental mistake. It sets up a circumstance where those under stress and those who are under-resourced can feel justified in taking extreme measures, such as murder of the people they take care of, as part of a program to alter public policy. When public opinion demonstrates itself to be in support of these extreme kinds of actions, there are people who will act accordingly. Expressions of support for these kinds of viewpoints come with a tremendous responsibility for the actions that can flow from them.

I think these are part of a class of ideas that might be called killing ideas. I recall the cover photograph on the Abilities magazine around the time of the first Latimer appeal. It showed a disabled person holding a sign which said, "no more killing ideas." I think the disabled people in the demonstrations which occurred after the appeal were responding in the knowledge that the ideas that were being related through the media were agents of death for people with disabilities. They were very dangerous ideas, they were killing ideas.

The idea of justifying a caretaker taking a disabled person's life because of the stress and absence of adequate services and supports does not always appear on the surface as a hostile thought toward people with disabilities. In its operation, however, it is a killing idea, and I believe that we have to identify it as such. While we must continue to strive for needed supports and resources in public policies, we cannot justify the taking of a life with a disability because of the deficits or gaps in services or resources that we may be struggling with.

There are other instances where people with disabilities will disagree with our stand on assisted suicide in instances of assisted suicide (i.e. Jack Kevorkian or Sue Rodriguez). In those instances, there may well be people with disabilities and some organizations that would disagree with our position. It seems to me that the way that our western medicine has advanced in the last 30 or 50 years so that people tend to die relatively slowly of chronic diseases, whether it be cancer or Alzheimers or some other disease. There are a lot of means to sustain life and sometimes life is not very good quality, in terms of pain or comfort or peace of mind or opportunity to grow and develop and do things. Many of us see elderly members of our families dying so very slowly from these chronic diseases in sometimes unenviable circumstances. We have begun to look to the idea of some kind of assisted death to assist this process. It is quite in keeping with our western technical mentality to not sit back and wait for the inevitable to occur or to refuse treatment and allow the ordinary biological processes to fail and death to happen. It is more likely that we are going to look for a technical solution—a human intervention This tendency is very wide spread in our population.

I think that the only reason that our organization of disabled people and many other organizations of disabled people take a stand against assisted suicide is because it is used as a rationale for denying life sustaining treatment and resources to people with disabilities or dealing out life terminating treatment to people with disabilities. The experience of disabled people during the Second World War under the Nazis symbolizes that danger for us. We fear policies that would allow suicide and so on because of their potential for abuses and misuse and the consequent threat to our lives. This perspective puts us in a slightly different position than the average member of the public. However, circumstances that create sympathy in the general public for assisted suicide or some means to truncate lengthy dying processes also effect people with disabilities through their family experiences and for themselves when they look toward how they want to die.

To summarize, I think our experience of the abuse of these kinds of ideas and mechanisms is such that our lives are threatened. The security of our body and person is really jeopardized and this justifies the position that we have taken against these policies. They may neutral policies in a neutral sort of opinion climate but so long as the public is so hostile to people with disabilities and so undervalue the quality of our lives then such policies are very dangerous.

Our traditional allies have not been supportive on this issue. We have had offers of support from pro-life groups. How do you reconcile this response to our issues?

I see that those who oppose our right to life as disabled people often under the banner of "right to die societies" who pursue and advocate policies that would allow the taking of our lives and so on have allied broadly with other sectors such as those who have an interest in doing away with standard mandatory sentences for murderers, those that would justify or rationalize infanticide for infants with disabilities, and so on. They have allied and they are a force in Ottawa and so I think that we need to have some strategic alliances of organizations who will understand our position and support it .

I do think however that we need to be a little careful when we make alliances with some of these very focused right to life organizations. In particular, we want to be certain that we are not exploited and that in fact positions we have developed on the right to choose abortions for women and so on not be compromised by our alliance with these organizations. They have very strong feelings on the other side of that issue. They need to understand that when we ally in favor of opposing assisted suicide legalization, euthanasia facilitating policies and laws and so on that we can make common cause and are glad to make common cause and work together on those issues but that our support does not extend to some of these other areas that they have a great interest in.

Biographical Note

Jim Derksen is a member of CCD's Human Rights Committee and was CCD Chairperson from 1984 to 1986.