[Editor’s Note: Anita Cameron has served on the national NDY Board since late 2013. She is a longtime community organizer with ADAPT and I have had the honor of knowing and working with her since 1987 when I joined ADAPT. She is one of the leaders of Not Dead Yet Colorado. Her article, Blacks and the Anti Assisted Suicide Movement, is very important and I’m grateful for her permission to reprint it below.]
As a disability rights activist, a critical part of disability rights advocacy and activism is, for me, the fight against assisted suicide and euthanasia.
I have been involved in this aspect of the movement for quite some time, upwards of 15 years. I am a member of, and sit on the board of Not Dead Yet, a national, grassroots disability rights organization opposed to the legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia as deadly forms of discrimination.
I’ve always noticed, but it has never really hit me until now, that very few Blacks are a part of the movement.
While we do get support from other Blacks, and there may be a token Black or two at local Not Dead Yet events and protests, as far as I know, I’m the only Black person in the country who is consistently active in this movement. I could be wrong. I hope I am.
Why is this? Why don’t more Black folks get involved with the anti assisted suicide movement?
It is well-known that the face of the anti assisted suicide movement, indeed, the disability rights movement, is White. It is well-known that often, contributions of Blacks to the disability rights movement are erased or unacknowledged. Even if Blacks are seen as leaders, the ones in front of the cameras or receiving the awards and accolades are usually White.
A 2013 Pew study showed that 65% of Black folks are against assisted suicide. Still, there is scant involvement of Black folks in campaigns to stop legislation that would legalize assisted suicide and euthanasia.
I have some ideas why there’s almost no Black participation in this movement.
1. This isn’t a part of our culture.
Frankly, assisted suicide isn’t something that is discussed in the Black community. I’d never heard of it, even though my birth mother lived with chronic illness and lived to see the end results of her condition. Not once did she complain. Not once did she ask to die. None of the folks in my church or community wanted to die because they were sick or disabled. I’m not saying that suicide doesn’t exist in the Black community, but in my experience, it was due to depression related to situational issues, such as the loss of a job, a spouse or loved one or something else entirely. When we get sick or become disabled, we or our families often turn to prayer or the church.
2. Assisted suicide is considered a White thing.
Many Black folks who I talk to about the anti assisted suicide movement say “that’s a White thing, we don’t do that stuff”. They ask me why have I devoted myself to a predominantly White issue.
3. Blacks with disabilities have enough specific issues to work on without working on an almost exclusively White issue that doesn’t affect us.
Some Black activists have told me that I’m wasting time on a movement that has nothing to do with us and that I should be involved in working on issues that directly affect Black folks.
The reasons above are valid but I’ve never let my race be a reason why I don’t do certain forms of activism. I have always been a pioneer, being the first or only Black in my class or my town to do something.
When I first got involved with the social justice and change movement at age 16, I was part of the anti nuclear movement. Yes, I was the only Black person in my group, and that would be true of every group I was a part of until I discovered ADAPT.
I joined the anti assisted suicide and anti euthanasia movement because I felt that it was important to fight against the devaluation of the lives of people with disabilities. Physician assisted suicide and euthanasia of people with disabilities is a deadly form of discrimination resulting from the fact that doctors and others do not see the lives of people with disabilities as valuable. This mirrors society’s beliefs that our lives are not worth living and that it is better to be dead than disabled.
The legalization of assisted suicide sets up a two-tiered system where if a non-disabled person is suicidal, they will receive treatment sometimes against their will, while people with disabilities experiencing the same get assisted suicide as an “option” or “choice”. Society frames the suicide of a non-disabled person as, at worst, a very selfish act or at best, the act of a sick person, while suicide by someone with a disability is considered to be brave and considerate, rather than a tragedy.
Assisted suicide legalization supporters see it as a choice to end their lives when they want to, but there are already options available without legalization.
Sometimes it feels odd as a Black person to be involved with the anti assisted suicide movement. It feels lonely to be the only Black face in my local group. I know that many people feel that I’m only a token.
It has only been very recently that there has been any form of conversation about the involvement of Blacks in the anti assisted suicide/anti euthanasia movement. I can only guess at the reasons for this. There needs to be far more conversations with, and outreach to the black community.
My presence as part of the movement is important and valuable. As we fight potential ballot initiatives in our state that would legalize euthanasia by lethal injection, Blacks will get caught up because due to medical racism, the lives of Blacks are already seen as less worthy than Whites. That’s even more so with Blacks with disabilities. Our families are pressured to withdraw life support for loved ones or we fall under state’s futility laws.
If euthanasia and assisted suicide laws that aren’t restricted to terminally ill folks goes into law here in Colorado, Black folks will surely join the movement as more and more of us are coerced into dying by the medical establishment.
Even if we win the fight in Colorado and defeat those ballot initiatives, groups like Compassion and Choices, formerly, The Hemlock Society, and other groups won’t stop until there is assisted suicide, at the very least, in Colorado.
As more states try to legalize assisted suicide and euthanasia, we Blacks, especially those of us with disabilities, will have to stop seeing this as merely a privileged White people’s issue and see that this touches us too. We can’t afford for the only voice in this to be White. We bring a unique and valuable perspective to the movement that cannot be understated.
I call on both the Disability and the Black community around the nation to come together and work on how we amplify Black voices and Black participation in the anti assisted suicide movement. We must be in solidarity with each other. Too many lives are at stake.