(RNS) Are you generally healthy? Got all of your parts working reasonably well? The majority of those with power in our culture do.
Not surprisingly, we find that many of our culture’s assumptions and actions have an “ableist” bias against those with disabilities.
Think this is just another concept made up by leftist academics pushing an agenda? That’s understandable. There are plenty of examples of this kind of thing in our culture, but ableism is not one of them.
Consider, for instance, a classic example of ableism: the abortion of prenatal children because they have Down syndrome. Depending on which poll you read, between 70 percent and 90 percent of babies with this prenatal diagnosis are killed. Why? Is it because we have data that such children cannot have good lives? Hardly. People with Down syndrome are actually happier than those without it.
Those who study ableism know that most of us who do not have Down syndrome have an unconscious bias against those who do. We are unable to shake ourselves out of ableist assumptions about the good life.
It turns out that the kinds of lives worth living are basically the ones we happen to have. We don’t need the actual data on what kind of lives those with Down syndrome have — we “just know” they are objectively worse off than we are. This kind of uncritical judgment is simply baked into our ableist cultural cake.
Hollywood, it should come as no surprise, bears deep responsibility for creating this kind of culture. Emily Ladau, a disability rights activist, wrote in Salon that ableist filmmakers often use disabled people to tell stories of what she calls “inspiration porn.” Remember that scene in “Forrest Gump” where he somehow magically breaks free of his leg braces and runs like the wind blows? And what about the assumption in “Million Dollar Baby” when the boxer, Maggie, loses her ability to box? It is, of course, that she request help to die.
The Hollywood ableist tradition continues even more blatantly in the new movie “Me Before You.” Based on a book of the same name, Ladau notes that the story “overflows with dehumanizing stereotypes about disability, from implications that disabled people are things no more active than houseplants, to assumptions that disability is a fate worse than death.”
The story portrays the life of Will Traynor, a once able-bodied man who becomes a quadriplegic and then falls in love with his caretaker Louisa Clark. Will has plans to kill himself via Dignitas, a Swiss organization that caters to “assisted-suicide tourists” who can’t find anyone to help kill them in their home country. His eventual suicide is portrayed as benefiting both characters.
The main complaint from nearly the entire disability community is that this is a cherry-picked story used to justify an ablest assumption: namely, that the life of someone who cannot walk is not worth living.
The movie doesn’t portray the actual views of most disabled people. Instead, it perniciously uses the story of an exceptional case to reinforce the harmful and inaccurate stereotype.
And harmful stereotypes become harmful public policies. Lawrence Carter-Long, who became a disability activist after watching “Million Dollar Baby,” notes “In different states, insurance companies will pay for somebody’s medication in order to take their own life, but somebody has to go to Kickstarter to get a wheelchair they need.”
Overburdened health care systems are structurally coerced into situations where they prefer assisted suicide to, say, extended chemotherapy or decades of paying for in-home caregivers.
Ominously, California recently legalized assisted suicide during a special legislative session designed to deal with its state Medicaid budget shortfall.
We have a saying in bioethics, “A right to die risks becoming a duty to die.”
Virtually anyone can find the one extreme case that makes assisted suicide seem like a reasonable idea. But once we allow its legality, the assumptions of our ableist culture will take over and push the law in directions its drafters never anticipated.
Physical pain doesn’t even make the top five reasons people request assisted suicide. The most common reasons have to do with loss of autonomy and fear of becoming a burden on others. But why is autonomy an essential part of a life worth living? Why is it bad to need the support of others?
Our culture is so blinded by its ableism assumptions that we never really ask these questions in a serious way.
But when we make policy with these assumptions in mind, we unwittingly risk creating an ableist duty to die. Our autonomy-obsessed utilitarian culture can’t help but send the message that disabled people have lives less worth living.
And when movies are made like “Me Before You,” we send a message to millions of people that may result in their feeling pressure to get out of the way in favor of those who can “autonomously choose” to be a “net benefit” to society.
We would do well to listen to the disability rights community about these matters and work hard in resisting a culture of ableism.
(Charles C. Camosy is associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University)