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When Einstein’s Scared I’m Scared

Curator's Note: Thanks to Al Etmanski for permission to repost this piece on physician-assisted dying. Al expresses clearly and boldly what is coming up for many of us in response to the new ruling on physician-assisted dying in Canada.

That line from the anti-nuclear bomb folk song “Atomic Talking Blues” has been swirling around my brain since the release of recommendations by the joint Parliamentary Committee on physician-assisted dying. The song refers to Einstein’s sober conclusion that we are not as smart as we think we are about scientific advancements, particularly those that take us into uncharted territory.

I have the same concern about where we might be headed with physician-assisted dying. In fact, I’m scared. Why?

Because the folks I’ve lived, loved, worked, fought and played with for most of my life are scared. We — individuals, families, friends and supporters — live not just with the vulnerability associated with disability, mental illness, dementia and aging but also with society’s aversion to vulnerability.

  (R)ights don’t exist in isolation. They carry obligations to ensure that we have sufficient safeguards to address the concerns of a much larger minority of vulnerable Canadians.

When so many people with disabilities and their families are scared I’m scared.

Here’s what we are NOT afraid of:

  • We are not afraid of dying, or no more than anyone else.
  • We are not afraid of vulnerability. We know it is possible to live, love and thrive with vulnerability.

We are, however, afraid that:

  • Disability, physical and mental limitation and vulnerability will continue to get confused with terminal illness.
  •  Pain will be held against those we care about despite their ability to manage and indeed transcend it. For example, I know of one young man who lives with unremitting pain and whom the medical system has declared ‘terminal.’ Yet he is a successful social entrepreneur and has an active social media following.
  • The decision by vulnerable people on whether or not to choose physician-assisted death will be taken away from them.

These are not irrational fears. As a parent advocate for people with disabilities for more than three decades, I’ve witnessed needless deaths and been involved in a number of efforts to prevent others from dying because of medical neglect and ignorance.

Sadly the current legal discussion about physician-assisted death primarily reveals to Canadians the fear-based side of the disability world. I also know that world to be openhearted. I’m worried that the wisdom of people with disabilities about what constitutes a good life and a good death will be lost at a time when it is needed most.

I accept the right to choose active euthanasia for the small minority of people who will ultimately avail themselves of that option. But rights don’t exist in isolation. They carry obligations to ensure that we have sufficient safeguards to address the concerns of a much larger minority of vulnerable Canadians.

That’s why I signed on as an advisor to the Vulnerable Persons Standard developed by the Canadian Association for Community Living. Their five guidelines were just released.

The Vulnerable Persons Standard is not the only contribution I want to make. I also want to be part of a robust conversation about what it will take to ensure all Canadians experience a good death. Until then I’m heeding Einstein’s advice. It’s best to be cautious when we unleash something we’ve never done before.

This blog was originally posted to the website of Al Etmanski and appears here with permission.

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Al Etmanski is a community organizer, social entrepreneur and author. He is a founding partner of Social Innovation Generation (SiG) and BC Partners for Social Impact. Previously he co-founded Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network (PLAN) with his wife Vickie Cammack and Jack Collins. Al is an Ashoka fellow, and a faculty member of John McKnight’s Asset Based Community Development Institute (ABCD). He once played air guitar with Randy Bachman of BTO (Bachman-Turner-Overdrive) in a rock video which convinced him to stick with his day job.

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