The Latimer Case: The Reflections of People with Disabilities - Murdered in the Name of Kindness

by Jim Derksen, Former CCD Chairperson

At this time of writing, it is December, when the days are steadily getting darker. As there is less light in our lives, I find it alarming to see, as a kind of parallel, public sympathies primarily in favor of Robert Latimer rather than his victim. Perhaps this is more disturbing for me because I am a person with obvious and significant disabilities. The support for Robert Latimer is in marked contrast to the public outrage at Susan Smith, who recently drowned her two young children in the US. It is obviously the disability of Tracy Latimer that most accounts for the difference in public opinion.

In the media coverage, there is no public questioning of the Latimer family's assertion of Tracy's unremitting and non-treatable pain. Why does this not surprise us? Could it be that the stereotype, associating severe disability with chronic pain, is so deeply embedded in our culture that critical thinking is never even engaged on this question? As a father, I, too, find it especially easy to feel compassion for a parent's distress seeing a sick child in pain. However, compassion must never extend to the justification of murder.

The rationale of necessity in the face of unavoidable pain and suffering is put forward by the defense, yet the surgery being considered by Tracy's doctor just before her murder would have eliminated that pain. A significant concern put forward by the Latimers about this hip joint surgery was that it would result in a mutilation of her body. To many people, body-piercing (of the ears, nose or tongue) is mutilating. But our values are changing— what appears as a mutilation to one person may be natural or beautiful to another.

One of the strengths of the human spirit, revealed in the life experience of many people with disabilities, is the ability to achieve good self-concept and positive body image, to be at home and comfortable in their differences, despite the negative reactions around them. According to Robert Latimer, the proposed surgery to remove Tracy's pain would also have removed the top of her femur, leaving her leg "forever floppy". Yet of what possible relevance is that to the consideration of Tracy's well being; or indeed to her life?

There is pain and suffering in every life. Who can decide for another that death would be a preferable mercy or kindness rather than continuing life with its pain? Life is a most precious and personal possession; who can judge the value another individual puts on his or her own life?

People with disabilities are murdered in the name of kindness more often than in hatred. Several hundred thousand Europeans with disabilities were gassed in Hitler's euthanasia program. In the first stage of the policy, somewhere around 8,000 children were "humanely" put to death at the behest of their families - only Aryans need apply. Most Canadians do not wish to speak of or even remember these victims. Is it because, like Tracy Latimer, they, too, were portrayed as being killed in the name of mercy and kindness, and that, like Nazi Germany, our society has never come to terms with, or accepted disability as a natural and necessary part of life?

One does not have to go so far as the Nazi experience in the 20th century, and scientifically advanced western Europe, to understand how the murder of people with disabilities appears to be motivated by mercy. Closer to home, one remembers the morphine killings of the children with disabilities who were residents of the Christopher Robin Institution in Ontario. Specific instances of so-called "mercy killing" of people like Tracy Latimer arise from a social context that has been deeply gouged with the general misperception that life with a disability is an unending, unredeemable tragedy. The commonly mistaken notion that our quality of life is so poor that it is not worth living results in a social environment in which people with disabilities are vulnerable - in which they risk ultimate harm from apparently well-intentioned, caring people. The situation may one day be corrected by means of the understanding that the quality of life of people with disabilities is not significantly different from that of those without. Our lives are as precious to us as anyone's life can be. We experience happiness, grief, pleasure, pain, loneliness, and love just as all people do.

Robert Latimer's appeal of his second-degree murder conviction contends he "had the legal right to decide to commit suicide for his daughter by virtue of her complete lack of physical and intellectual abilities". Of course, it is obvious, at least to people with disabilities, that Tracy had many physical and mental abilities. Some see the glass as half empty, some see it as half full.

Will prejudiced, stereotypical thinking about disability in our society keep people from understanding Tracy's abilities? Will the public refuse to see the photos of her smiling face, refuse to hear the description of Tracy by her former day care worker, as a relatively happy girl, by no means afflicted with pain?

Tracy is no longer alive and therefore, not able to represent herself. Surely it is not reasonable to accept her killer and his supporters, even though they are members of her family, as best able to represent her views now. Perhaps people living with disabilities similar to Tracy's can give us some insight into what her views might be on the questions raised by her death.

I consulted Shelly during the height of the trial and the widespread public speculation on whether Robert Latimer would be found guilty. Shelly is a single mother in her mid 20s, living in her own apartment with the support of her family, friends, and visiting home-care staff. Like Tracy, her disability is related to cerebral palsy—she cannot talk or move anything but her eyes and facial muscles, and requires complete physical care assistance. Unlike Tracy, she does not have significant trouble eating, nor is she labeled "mentally handicapped".

Shelly was well informed of the Latimer court case. Using eye gaze and her Plexiglas symbol board, she told me without hesitation that she felt Robert Latimer must be found guilty of first degree murder. Her view on the deserving sentence will seem extreme to many; it being that he should be executed in the same manner in which Tracy had been killed. We can better understand her position when we appreciate how she might identify with Tracy, and how she might react to the public support for Tracy's killer.

Catherine, 33 years old, lives in a co-op home with two roommate attendants. Her disabilities seem to be very similar to those of Tracy Latimer. She has a seizure disorder as well as cerebral palsy-related spasicity; she is not able to communicate in language as we know it, and needs complete physical care. Catherine, like Tracy, experienced chronic hip dislocation when she was about 12 years old, which was relieved by surgery. Although Catherine endures severe illness at times, and she is unable to tell us in so many words that she prefers life over death, those of us who know her see the joy she obviously finds in living.

Perhaps the human spirit is stronger and more flexible than most people care to admit. Among those whom I know who have disabilities, regardless of the nature and degree of these, there is about as much enjoyment of life, proportionately, as there is among people in my acquaintance without disabilities. It seems that while those seeing our experience from the outside are only able to imagine tragedy, grief, fear and pain, we ourselves can accommodate severe limitations, very difficult circumstances,—and still find our share of happiness.

This is not generally understood. From a disability perspective, it meant that Tracy Latimer as a person was not well understood and, thus, her life has not been well represented by those close to her.

The Latimer murder trial shows we must look to the law for equal protection from those who would harm us in the mistaken belief that our lives are not as worthy of living as those of others.

In his distress, Robert Latimer took his daughter's life in the same manner in which a person might put down a beloved family pet: with the carbon monoxide exhaust of a vehicle. The decision was a terrible mistake, and one for which he must be held responsible. Acquittal of Robert Latimer certainly would have been a declaration of "open season" on children with similar disabilities. In essence, it would have jeopardized the safety of any persons judged by those around them to be enduring an unacceptable quality of life due to suffering. In theconviction or sentencing of Latimer, treatment by the courts which is to any degree more lenient than that provided to any other convicted murderer, sends a message of less than equal protection by the law, thereby resulting in greater risk for people with disabilities.

We must not be motivated by vindictive intent or revenge; our purpose must be to defend people with disabilities put at risk by events such as the killing of Tracy Latimer. But our positions and actions should be based on the knowledge that our lives are, quite literally, on the line.

Therefore, we must applaud the conviction of Robert Latimer. We must also question why he was convicted of second-degree murder rather than first-degree murder, when the facts leave little doubt that Robert Latimer premeditated and deliberated the manner and means of his daughter's death.

We must defend ourselves in the public policy environment on several fronts. First, we must publicly oppose any political process by the Governor General-in-Council to pardon Robert Latimer. Furthermore, we must publicly oppose any process to amend the Criminal Code of Canada to legalize or provide for more lenient sentencing for the intentional taking of human life where the victim has a disability and the perpetrator is acting with what are alleged to be compassionate intentions. Finally, we must take all legal measures available to us to oppose any appeal process on behalf of a retrial. The likely result of such an eventuality would be either acquittal or a more lenient sentence.

There are many who honestly believe Robert Latimer should not be jailed. They argue that he presents no danger to anyone. But as the December days grow shorter and darker, I am more and more aware of this fact: Robert Latimer murdered his daughter Tracy; he did not commit suicide for her. He has to bear the punishment for acting out a horror that so many in our society harbor in their hearts.

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