Liz Crow's brave and startling protest was to commemorate the victims of Aktion T4 and to draw attention to the relevance of those events for disabled people today. She says in the press release available here;
Today, the development of pre-natal screening and a rush to legal rights for newly disabled people to assisted suicide, show that disabled people’s right to life still needs to be defended. With a rise in hate crime, disabled children still excluded from mainstream schools, and over 340,000 disabled people (more than the population of Cardiff) living in institutions, disabled people still experience those historical values as a daily threat.”Clair Lewis put it even more strongly;
"The values that the Nazis used to justify murdering quarter of million disabled people are just as strong today."Now Nazism is over-rated. Nazism itself has become synonymous with total uncomplicated evil, the worst thing ever. It was, at the very least, a rather complicated evil and hardly the worst thing ever - very many times more people suffered and died in the Atlantic slave trade, for example, because of similarly nationalist and racist ideas.
These days the concept of Nazism is a touchstone of hyperbole. My favourite Nazi-related portmanteaus are econazi and feminazi. Environmentalism and feminism having exactly what in common with the far-right? Telling people to change their behaviour, apparently. The first Nazis took away people's freedom of speech, freedom of movement, the right to a private life and in many cases, life itself. These days, exactly the same kinds of people are making us feel ashamed for using plastic bags. Vee have ways of making your recycle und respect vimen!
But calling someone a Nazi is a good way of shutting them up. It's an insult, it turns people off and it silences debate. Nobody is going to engage with you in you compare them to the forces of tyranny and genocide. And clearly that's often way people are after. If nobody you disagree with engages with you, you can pretend that nobody (who isn't an evil Nazi) has any other arguments. I don't believe that of Liz Crow, Clair Lewis and other disabled activists for whom I have the utmost respect, and so I want to challenge their assertion.
The idea that modern disablism and the disablism of the Nazis are connected is not without merit. Personally, I've never heard anyone suggest that disabled people should be killed off but I do occasionally hear or read someone state that disabled people are an economic and social burden to everyone else, and it is imperative for current society and future populations that we abort foetuses which are likely to result in a disabled baby (even if the vast majority of disabled people could not be "screened-out"). But this isn't many people, certainly not most.
I have met, hear or read very many more people who think that disabled people are an economic and social burden but that, out of compassion, we should be looked after. They see reasonable accommodation as an act of charity, state benefits as alms. This causes no end of problems for us and it does leave us in a vulnerable position should the former rhetoric grow stronger. But is this comparable to Nazism?
I have written two lengthy posts on euthanasia if anyone wants to read my ultimately ambivalent views here and here. I'm not making an argument for one side or another here, just asking questions about some questions about the comparison, focusing on the most controversial issues of euthanasia and abortion.
Are the abortion of disabled foetuses and calls for the decriminalisation of assisted suicide driven by the same motives as the Nazi Aktion T4 programme?
As far as abortion is concerned, I'm afraid there is an echo. The individual decisions of pregnant women are always individual, but broader social attitudes are clear. Parents of disabled children (and disabled parents or non-disabled children) report the judgment of others that having their child was somehow irresponsible. Sarah Palin's choice to continue with her pregnancy when her unborn child screened positive for Down Syndrome has been presented both as an act of saintliness and profound selfishness - it was neither. I've written a lot about prevention here and here, but yeah, it's the same old. Don't subject your child to this half-life, don't burden society with this half-person.
But does that mean we shouldn't screen for impairments and we shouldn't allow women to have abortions on those grounds, just because the rhetoric stinks? Does the only way to make disabled people equal involve restricting women's reproductive freedoms? Would it not be better to focus on the creation of a world in which having a disabled child was not seen as a disaster?
Assisted-suicide is quite a different matter. Calls for decriminalisation are driven by ideas around compassion, the relief from tremendous suffering or simply freedom - the freedom for people with severe impairments to make the same self-destructive choices that the rest of us can.
Whether these ideas are misguided is up for debate. Point is, the non-disabled people most vocal about assisted suicide do not so much as imply that this is about disabled people being a burden to others. Tragically, some of the disabled people talking about assisted suicide consider themselves a burden, but that's not really how this argument is popularly made.
Are there similarities between legal assisted suicide as it might exist in the UK, the abortion of disabled foetuses and what the Nazis did to disabled people?
No. There's a very important word here and that's consent.
This was the biggest reason that T4 was ultimately abandoned. The Nazis didn't act with the consent of disabled people's families, let alone the disabled people themselves. There is a tremendous moral difference between an abortion which a woman consents to and a forced sterilisation. There is a similarly enormous difference between assisted suicide and murder. And whilst alas, many Germans could turn a blind eye when the Jewish family down the street disappeared, when it was their child, their parent or their sibling, it could not be born.
Being murdered, or having your reproductive choices violently removed are perhaps the greatest imaginable crimes against your person. Not that everything that may be consented to is necessarily okay, but at least there's some room for debate when there is consent.
And I think it is possible to increase the degree to which a person can give their consent. The more information a person has, the less pressure they are under, the more freedom they really have. Whatever the choice they have to make.
Could assisted-suicide be the first step on a slippery slope towards the persecution and genocide of disabled people?
Slippery slope arguments can be made about any change and are therefore best avoided.
In any case, it is very unlikely. I have plenty to say about the disablism that exists in the world today - as do others - but I still reckon that we're winning the battle. In general, things are better for disabled people in the UK now than they were five years ago, and even better than they were ten years ago. There are increasing reports of disability hate crime in the UK, but that may be because we've only very recently started talking about hate crime towards disabled people. Like any kind of crime against an oppressed group of people, reporting patterns and offending patterns may not completely coincide.
What is a real danger is unintended consequences. In the same way that women report feeling under increased pressure to abort a disabled foetus, there will be some severely ill people who will feel under pressure to opt out – or, perhaps even worse, some people with physical impairments and depression may find that their irrational suicidal thoughts are given some legitimacy by the society in which they live. This is a long way from genocide, but it would still be very very bad news.
The one thing I do feel really strongly about in all this is that there is no moral difference between the suicide of any two people who are not actually dying. The life of a young man who wants to die because he has a spinal injury is no less valuable than that of a young man who wants to die because he failed his exams or broke up with a beloved girlfriend.
But there may be ways of decriminalising assisted-suicide to prevent unnecessary suffering in death and preventing tragedy. If perhaps we think and talk about it for long enough?
Whatever happens, disabled people who consider themselves equal to non-disabled people need to be talking about this stuff and applying a little imagination. These are grey areas of morality; people have abortions or end their lives because they regard their chosen course as the lesser of two evils. I believe that we can and must decide which shade of grey is preferable for everyone, but seeing the matter in black and white missing the point entirely.