Thursday, June 07, 2007

Forwarded on behalf of Linda Edwards.

Ragged Edge, 1997

Disabled women & suicide: Dying to be free?
by Barbara Waxman Fiduccia

Why are women dying to be free but men aren't? Because men have women to care for them. But women lose their family and social supports once they are categorized as non-breeders and are no longer a source of nurturance. They are discarded as socially useless and wind up in an earthbound limbo.

There is no such state as "terminal illness," only the status of life with a disability. But when a woman becomes disabled, she may be influenced to call herself "terminally ill" to justify suicidality. Once disabled, her daily life becomes medicalized, isolated and impoverished. The solutions offered to ease her predicament are medical treatment, cures -- and if those don't work, death.

When feminists contend that assisted suicide is a choice and a private matter, they are harboring a paternalistic notion of privacy. All women and girls face great dangers in private, which feminists are all too familiar with. Private family matters conceal incest, domestic violence, and female genital mutilation.

The sources of disabled women's difficulties, feminists should realize, almost always stem from isolation and poverty.

Disabled women who want to die are virtually always depressed and in despair. The majority have experienced some sort of violence, be it emotional, physical, sexual, or financial. This violence may also take the form of neglect. They are isolated from their families and their community. They are isolated from the essential treatment and resources they need.
The woman's community has abandoned these women, too. The political, social, and economic predicament of disabled women has been excluded from the feminist platform time and time again. By supporting the availability of assisted suicide, feminists are unwittingly sacrificing the protection of all women's lives.

There are two feminist arguments for assisted suicide. Both arguments exhibit the kind of "medical model" thinking that in other contexts feminists abhor.

One argument insists that the so-called "suffering" of people with disabilities or health problems places a "burden" upon unpaid female family members -- and that "ending" that "suffering" will lift the "burden". The other line of reasoning insists that legalizing assisted suicide will give women more power to control their own lives.

But the availability of assisted suicide supported by feminist organizations such as the National Organization for Women (and my friends over at the Los-Angeles based Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, who supported the 2 assisted-suicide cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court this past summer) will not free women from the caregiver role, nor will assisted suicide extend a woman's autonomy and privacy in health care decision-making.

"Medical model" thinking defines women's problems as individual problems to be solved by medical treatment and cures. Small breasts get medically augmented, women's moods get medicated, and birth gets technology. Medical model proponents contend that a disabled person's suffering arises from physical pain, and that death is the answer to pain, isolation, and oppression.

But the minority model -- which feminism is founded on -- suggests that the sources of most difficulties faced by minority group members are in the social and political environments: a disabled person's suffering has more to do with depression, political oppression, and social isolation than any medical condition. Policy change is the answer -- but not the type of change advocated by proponents of assisted suicide.

Feminists have for decades been fighting for safe and affordable child care. Similarly, feminist activists should be joining disabled and senior activists in our political efforts. These efforts are to shift federal and state dollars away from institutions to long-term in-home assistance, provided by semi-professionals who provide personal services for extensively disabled individuals.

Every individual does have a right to control her own life. But in practice, the physician assisted suicide option has the potential of becoming a practice similar to the way sterilization has been performed on poor Black and Latina women after childbirth, who have been asked to sign a consent form for tubal ligation while they were in the throes of labor. Some disabled people are reporting being pressured to sign "do not resuscitate" (DNR) orders, directing physicians to withhold measures such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation or assistive ventilation.

Death is an odd liberation from depression, isolation, powerlessness, violence, and sexism. Feminist activists need to reject the eugenic thinking they've embraced. If they do not, I fear that the very women they regard as exploited will be those whose death warrants they will be co-signing under the banner of "choice."

Barbara Waxman Fiduccia writes frequently about issues of reproductive rights. A longer version of this article appeared recently in a Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago newsletter.