So, apparently it's OK to kill a disabled person if they're in pain?

2010-10-07 by

This is my response to the Zoe Williams’ article published in The Guardian , Abortion and euthanasia: was Virginia Ironside right?

The article follows up from the appearance on TV of agony aunt Virginia Ironside, whose views on euthanasia and abortion shocked many viewers of the BBC’s Sunday Morning Live.

While reviewing that discussion The Guardian’s Zoe Williams, argues that in spite of her extremist views, Virginia Ironside has a valid point and was brave.

On the live television programme Ms Ironside stated that if her child was in deep pain she would smother her with a pillow – she argued that in fact it would be a humane act. The article assumes that although being wrong in her documented eugenic beliefs, Virginia Ironside is somehow right in this instance because she creates a moral dimensions for being pro-choice (therefore she gives a moral standing to those women who uphold the right to an abortion). Zoe Williams suggests that she might have a point in advocating for the abortion of a disabled fetus on the grounds of sparing the child a life of pain. Virginia Ironside self-righteously states that as “any good mother would” she would spare her child a life of pain by smothering them with a pillow.

But surely, murdering a child by suffocating her with a pillow is certainly not the same as having a termination? It surely is completely different from aborting a fetus without a brain yet to feel and perceive pain? Let me clarify: I’m talking about regular termination here, not late abortion. In the case of late abortion, this is more controversial certainly but it’s not up to me to be judgmental of any woman who makes this personal choice.

As Zoe Williams’ points out, even if modern analgesia did not exist, Ms Ironside is simply stirring controversy for the sake of it – by claiming “her child” would be better off dead. I wonder if she would really know what it’s really like to suffocate your own child, kicking and screaming and she clings to life, to her last breath, the terror in her heart knowing that even her own mother has given up on her. Come on: this supposition is ludicrous. No wonder her statement roused an avalanche of angry responses from viewers and readers – deservedly so.

But what I was a bit disappointed with was with a few of the article’ points – namely that:

a) Ms Ironside’s beliefs, although wrong, are given some kind of moral ground to being pro-choice (because it’s about sparing a life of pain).

b) The impression that many disabled people refuse the idea that their lives are associated with pain and discomfort and that we are so focused on the social model of disability that we are not honest about experiencing pain – all we focus on is discrimination.

In response to the first point, being pro-choice means that one does not judge women’s for making a decision that involves their lives and their bodies, and that whether you’d go for an abortion yourself or not does not imply you’d judge other women for going that route.

As it’s pointed out, by being pro-choice you are not automatically advocating for the abortion of disabled fetuses or euthanasia of people with a severe impairment. The simple fact is that being pro-choice has a moral dimension on its own simply because it respects women’s right to make a deeply personal choice whether you agree with it or not. This is one of the highest “moral” stands in itself, without the need for any further justification.

About the second statement, at times disabled people (especially disability rights advocates) might give the impression, that we don’t want to talk about pain or might appear to fail to acknowledge that some impairments might affect someone more than others.

Let me rectify this: disabled people are not naïve: we certainly are aware that some impairments impact on your life more than others. But we should not be too quick in our assumptions.

For example, I am severely deaf and my impairment, although pretty significant for me might be considered less severe by some, let’s say, than a friend’s impairment who has had polio as a child and now uses a wheelchair.

But I think one should not assume this because my friend with polio could in turn, feel much “better off” than me when through lack of hearing I misunderstand something and make a fool of myself or I’m unable to talk to a bank employee through a thick glass because they don’t know how to switch on the hearing loop, and so on.

We can be honest to admit that if someone is in constant pain, in spite of medication, their quality of life might be affected, even if living in the most inclusive and accessible society of all. However, pain is a very personal matter. And disabled people would rather society focus on the social barriers that need addressing – not their pain.

Focusing on the pain of people with impairment, this would detract from actually working towards taking down barriers in the built environment, in transport and eliminating prejudice and discrimination disabled people experience. This is why, although the Social Model of disability is not a perfect theory, it helps separate the personal from the social. It is a very effective tool in helping people understand that irrespective of the pain disabled people might feel personally, the anger we all share at the discrimination we experience is pretty much universal. The outrage we feel at being excluded from society, transport, employment and social opportunities runs pretty much across the board.

And a point about quality of life: I had a friend who recently passed away. He had significant mobility impairment, used an electric wheelchair and was in considerable pain oftentimes – doctors expected him to die a few decades earlier than he did. But he had a great, meaningful job, he was deeply respected in his role, was independent through the use of Personal Assistance, he lived in a great accessible flat. He threw lots of parties, loved good food, literature and poetry and had a massive amount of friends. I would say he had a great quality of life…what do you think?

Please let’s not make assumptions about disabled people: however much pain we might experience personally that is no-one’s business, unless we choose to share it with whom we feel like. The fact is that in pain or not, we deserve to participate in life and society just like everyone else. Our pain, no matter how intense, is not ammunition for a eugenic take on life that justifies murder to spare pain.


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