Euthanasia enthusiasm

by Jan Grue

I was never a great admirer of D.H. Lawrence, even as a teenager. I read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, probably expecting some sort of frisson, some Vitalist thrill, even though the book could hardly carry the same impact in the 1990s as it had on its original publication. That thrill, however, depends entirely on one’s capacity for literary identification – with Lady Chatterley’s erotic awakening, or with Mellors the gamekeeper’s forceful physicality.

Unfortunately I was a wheelchair user, and so instead I couldn’t help identifying, on some level, with Clifford Chatterley. Unlike any other character I’d encountered in the Western canon, he even used a power wheelchair – inexpertly built and prone to breakdowns, but clearly a distant ancestor of the Permobil Trax chair I used – and still use – every day.

Clifford Chatterley is not what literary scholars would call a round character. He is perhaps best understood as a cobbled-together set of neuroses, hostility, and bitterness, the very model of what Tobin Siebers critiqued as the Freudian caricature of a disabled person: Wrapped up in narcissistic anxiety over an equally damaged body and soul.

I reacted to Lady Chatterley’s Lover more or less instinctively, with visceral unease, while reading it in my teens. On the level of comprehension and analysis, things fell rather more solidly into place a few years later, when I came across John Carey’s book The Intellectuals and the Masses. There, Carey quotes the following words from Lawrence’s letters (written in 1908, a full two decades before the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover):
"If I had my way, I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace, with a military band playing softly, and a Cinematograph working brightly; then I’d go out in the back streets and main streets and bring them in, all the sick, the halt, and the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would smile me a weary thanks; and the band would softly bubble out the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’."
Historical colour lithograph of the Crystal Palace in London,
overlooking a vast park with picknicking groups.
There it is: An uplifting, well-orchestrated take on eugenically motivated genocide. Clifford Chatterley, it seems, got off easy. It may be because he was injured in the war, not burdened with a congenital impairment.

John Carey’s point is not that D.H. Lawrence was unique in holding murderously eugenicist views, it is rather that he was fairly representative of his time and milieu. A blog post is not a sufficient format for discussing that history in detail; here, I will merely draw some attention to the enthusiasm of his position, the softly bubbling music that accompanies the march toward the death chambers. And will point this out because of a recent spate of media stories with a similarly enthusiastic view of the deaths of people with impairments and serious illnesses.

Many of these stories have already been subject to some controversy, with disability activists and advocates of euthanasia or assisted suicide joining the debate. The two stories I will refer to here are readable in different ways, depending on one’s politics. My interest in them is chiefly centered on the intersection of aesthetics and morality – in how a certain kind of death is presented in the media as both beautiful and just, and therefore perhaps also necessary.

The first story can be read here:

Jerika Bolen, a 14-year old girl “followed through on her decision to enter hospice and end an arduous, lifelong fight against Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type 2, an incurable and progressive disease that racked her body and brought continual pain”. It should be noted that SMA type 2, Bolen’s diagnosis, is generally consistent with a life expectancy well beyond late middle age.

In the article linked to, as in multiple other interviews and media texts, Bolen is presented as a rational agent making a rational choice – death over life – because of circumstances that, ultimately, cannot be changed. In the media optics, social and economic factors belong to these immutable circumstances. The “fight” cannot be won by living, only by dying. A celebratory tone ran through many of the news items that covered Bolen’s last few months. The stress was put on her “bravery” and on her autonomy.

Another story, perhaps even more striking because of the accompanying images, can be read here:

Betsy Davis, a “41-year-old artist with ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, held the gathering to say goodbye before becoming one of the first Californians to take a lethal dose of drugs under the state's new doctor-assisted suicide law for the terminally ill.” The images showing her saying her goodbyes, surrounded by friends and family, are in their way even more striking than the portraits of Jerika Bolen. Death not only represents a victory, but a cause for celebration.

This is how the case for assisted suicide is put in the age of individual rights: As a triumph of autonomy, a celebration of self-chosen death. There are myriad differences between Bolen and Davis, between their conditions, their decisions, ultimately, of course, between their lives. In the media, however, a number of distinctions and differences collapse. The story remains the same, however, and can be paraphrased as follows: In the struggle against disability and disease, death can be a victory.

Euthanasia and assisted suicide are not, currently, framed by their advocates as state responsibilities or as arenas for state agencies. There will be no lethal chambers as big as the Crystal Palace. Death is a private matter, subject to the autonomous decisions of private citizens. In a word, it has been privatized.

There are distinctly national and regional approaches to the matter of voluntary death, ranging from the libertarian assisted-suicide approaches of the Western United States to the more paternalistic, euthanasia-inflected approach of Belgium. Generally, however, arguments in favor of the facilitation of such death are contingent upon an atomistic conception of “voluntary” – divorced from political structures, economic conditions, and social attachments. Divorced, in short, from nearly everything that shapes the reality of living with impairment or illness. While the band is softly bubbling the Hallelujah chorus, benefits are being cut and safety nets removed all over the developed world. There is every reason for disability scholars, advocates, activists, and for disabled people, to be wary of the current media enthusiasm for euthanasia and assisted suicide.

Recommended Citation:
Jan Grue (2016): Euthanasia enthusiasm. In: Public Disability History 1 (2016) 22.

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