During the Brittany Maynard publicity explosion, bioethicist Arthur Caplan wrote that young people, identifying with Maynard, would come out in droves to push the legalization of assisted suicide. There is, however, a cohort of young people reacting to the Maynard videos in exactly the opposite way, by expressing their strong opposition.
Meghan Schrader, a thirty-two year old from Massachusetts with whom we became acquainted just this week, is part of this cohort. As a person with disability working with people with disabilities who also have socio-economic and racial disadvantages, she is acutely aware of just how dangerous widespread legalization would be in the prevailing social context of inequality. Below, in italics, is an article Schrader originally posted as a comment on a closed Facebook page. She has expanded and revised it for True Dignity. The title of this post is also hers.
Brittany Maynard could have been my classmate. Like her, I am a member of the millennial generation, born two years before her in 1982. Since Maynard’s entrance into the public arena, many have speculated that she will inspire the “the Millenial Generation,” to support choice in dying. But as a disability advocate who has lived and studied the experience of systemic ableism, I am firmly and unequivocally against this practice. I am very disturbed by what I regard to be the lookist, ableist, racist and classist way in which Brittany’s image has been promoted as the new face of assisted suicide.
Maynard’s appeal lies largely in her whiteness, the vulnerability associated with her gender, and the impression of able-bodiedness conferred by her wedding photos. What’s more, the concept of autonomy she represented is based on the circumstances of those who share that privileged status.
For instance, Brittany Maynard’s privileged conception of autonomy was reflected in her editorial demanding that (palliative care physician) Ira Byock not discuss “her.” This ironic request for privacy was waylaid by the fact that Maynard wanted society to effect social policy based on her story. Hence, her characterization of her decision as being between her and her doctor was inappropriate: Maynard’s decision was between her and the rest of the country. The public has a right to consider such legislation in the context of other cancer patients, who have an equal claim to the country’s consideration.
For example, since 2008 I have spent time as a Special Education Surrogate Parent in the Massachusetts school system. Volunteers assume the responsibilities of a parent in making educational decisions for special needs students in foster care. All of the students I’ve had were younger members of the millennial generation, all of whom were people of color who had been maltreated by their families and by social services. If one of them got cancer, their experience of autonomy would be much different than Maynard’s. Unlike her, they would navigate their options through the agency of over-extended or apathetic social workers. They would not have loving families to stand by them as they underwent chemotherapy, or sit vigil at their bedsides during their last weeks in hospice; they would be subject to the ministrations of volunteers like me. Hence, a choice for assisted suicide on their part would be made in the context of social subjugation.
At most, Brittany spoke for *some* millennials. But when I think of the colleagues I have met through the Society of Disability Studies, many of whom are also millennials, I’m once again reminded that there are entire demographics whose perspectives are not included in this pivotal discussion. As a millennial who grew up in special education and witnessed the pernicious influence of systemic oppression, I am adamantly opposed to assisted suicide, as are my colleagues who were almost allowed to die in infancy or who have faced medical professionals urging them not to choose medical treatment that would save their lives. Much of this discrimination was the result of cultural invisibility; the latter of which results in historical and political ignorance.
Brittany came from an upper middle class family; enjoyed post-secondary education at a top tier school, traveled extensively, and thus lived her life in a socially dominant position. If she had chosen hospice care, her family would have supported her financially, physically and emotionally. Her story and its presentation in the mainstream media represent the social sphere in which most right-to die ideology is formed: that of able-bodied, educated, privileged white people. As the media encourages lawmakers to focus myopically on Maynard’s story, I hope that they will remember the thousands of people whose faces will never appear on the cover of People Magazine.