Webcast archive: “Vulnerability” and assisted suicide

This week, we discuss what vulnerability is, and its connection to assisted suicide.

In this episode of Euthanasia & Disability, Amy Hasbrouck, Christian Debray and Taylor Hyatt discuss:

  • “Vulnerability” and assisted suicide
  • Disability Day of Mourning on March 1

Please note that this text is only a script and that our webcast contains additional commentary.


  • This week, we’re looking at the idea of “vulnerability:” what it is, how it relates to disability, and how the meaning of “vulnerable” has changed in response to the legalization of assisted suicide.
  • Vulnerability is connected to assisted suicide and euthanasia (AS/E) because the Supreme Court has said that vulnerable people need to be protected from being convinced to commit suicide in a time of weakness.  One definition of vulnerability is “being at risk of harm.” In her presentations on the subject, Catherine Frazee – a disability scholar and Professor Emerita at Ryerson University – has said that everyone is vulnerable in some ways, at some times, but some situations can make people especially vulnerable.  They include:
    • Being homeless, in an institution, or not having enough money to live on;
    • Not having supportive friends and family;
    • Being ill or in pain; and
    • Having a mental illness or low self-esteem.
  • Frazee says that “buffers” can help prevent vulnerability such as:
    • Good social relationships;
    • Being listened to and respected;
    • Having a safe home and liveable income; and
    • Having the services and supports needed to control one’s life.
  • These buffers keep us from feeling our vulnerability constantly and give us resilience, in that they help us to “bounce back” from difficult times.
  • When at least one of these buffers is weakened or absent, “we experience our vulnerability full-force,” Frazee says. Therefore, people are made vulnerable. Contrary to the stereotype, vulnerability isn’t a “built-in” trait that certain groups of people have.
  • The connection between vulnerability and disability comes from “social disadvantage … exclusion and discrimination.” The disadvantage created by prejudice and lack of accessibility that disabled people face increases the situations that lead to vulnerability – for example, poverty, homelessness, isolation, abuse, or coercion.
  • This constant exclusion and devaluation wears people down, making it harder to respond to “shock, stress or trauma.” If society doesn’t value or support someone’s life, the person is also less likely to value it, and they soon lose hope.
  • Catherine Frazee notes that distress makes a person more susceptible to encouragement to end their lives. This comes in the form of positive motivations, such as “being promised … that you will be honoured for your sacrifice, remembered for your courage,” and valued.  Negative motivations include being made to feel “ashamed, devalued, powerless, rejected, (or otherwise) stripped of dignity,” or like a burden.  As well, the “suffering” that assisted suicide advocates often attribute to their health conditions may actually be a “struggle” to live a “satisfying” life in a society that devalues and excludes disabled people.
  • Professor Frazee says we must “Treat every serious request to die as an emergency,” and “[m]ake an urgent assessment of the requester’s vulnerability.”  For people who are deemed “vulnerable” society must put in place the services and supports needed to provide buffers and restore the person’s resiliency in the face of disability and terminal illness.
  • Professor Frazee concludes that access to assisted suicide “must be limited to: persons whose … material and social assets (i.e. privilege) …completely shield them from all forms of human vulnerability, (and) persons with terminal conditions whose death is imminent.” Even then, “[a]ssisted suicide must only be made available after a detailed and individualized plan for high quality palliative care” is implemented.
  • Frazee served as an advisor to the Vulnerable Persons Standard (VPS) coalition, which produced a series of recommendations to Parliament for Canada’s AS/E legislation. The VPS is meant to protect people whose circumstances put them at increased risk of pressure to end their lives. The Standard was meant to ensure that all potential areas of vulnerability, and motivations for assisted suicide, were addressed before a request for death was granted. According to the VPS coalition, “Canada’s MAiD law fully complies with three of the VPS requirements, partially complies with eight of the requirements and does not comply with five of the requirements.”
  • Since assisted suicide and euthanasia have been legalized, the definition of a “vulnerable” person appears to be changing. Someone is now considered “vulnerable” if they can’t access AS/E easily and quickly, as shown in the Ontario Divisional Court case which we discussed on February 2nd. Specifically, the Court found that without the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario’s mandatory referral policy, there would be “a real risk of a deprivation of equitable access to health care, particularly on the part of the more vulnerable members of our society.”
  • It seems a lot of effort is being put into improving access to assisted suicide, which is labeled an exercise in personal freedom. At the same time, the lack of freedom and resources available to people with disabilities – the true cause of vulnerability – is being ignored.


  • When a disabled person is killed by their relative or caregiver, society often looks the other way. The legal system gives lenient sentences to the killers, concluding that the homicide is somehow justified by the stress of caring for a disabled person. Media coverage, too, glosses over the fact that someone’s life was violently cut short; they pay more attention to the plight of the nondisabled relative whose life is “limited” by the person’s disability.  This is yet another way in which the lives of disabled people are devalued.
  • Since 2012, the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN), Not Dead Yet, and other disability rights organizations have commemorated disabled people killed by parents and caregivers through the Disability Day of Mourning. Remembrance events are held every March 1st.  These gatherings are meant to:
    • draw public attention to the deaths;
    • condemn the apathy of the legal system,
    • counter the negative media portrayals of disabled victims;
    • “demand justice and equal protection under the law for all people with disabilities;” and
    • send the message that “disability is not a justification for violence.”
  • According to ASAN, over 550 disabled people have been murdered by relatives or caregivers since the vigils began.
  • A list of vigil sites (including in Canada) is available on the Network’s website. We encourage anyone who is able to attend in person, and we hope that ASAN will hold a virtual vigil again this year via the Network’s Facebook page, for those who do not have an event in their area.
  • For more information on this issue, check out a paper written by Amy Hasbrouck that specifically focuses on prosecution and sentencing of parents who kill their disabled children, or visit the Day of Mourning website at disability-memorial.org.