Disability Devaluation and Euthanasia Cheerleading in the Saskatchewan Leader-Post

Read our thoughts on a Saskatchewan newspaper’s account of a man’s euthanasia.

Disability Devaluation and Euthanasia Cheerleading in the Saskatchewan Leader-Post – July 29, 2019
 Toujours Vivant-Not Dead Yet Staff

 Back in April, an article about the euthanasia of a man in Broadview, Saskatchewan was published in the Saskatchewan Leader-Post. Under the guise of raising awareness of the availability of Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD), the article portrays the euthanasia of 55-year-old Michael Hoskins as a dignified, heroic and peaceful alternative to living with a disability.  Not only does it reinforce negative disability stereotypes, but it also violates the World Health Organization’s guidelines for reporting on suicide. The amount of open and unquestioned ableism in this article made it stand out from the run-of-the-mill “MAiD promotion” pieces we encounter on a regular basis, so we felt it warranted further comment.

The journalist quotes only one source for the article: Mr. Hoskins’ sister, Lisa, whose views are parroted throughout.  This breach of the most basic rules of journalism is the kind of mistake one would see from an inexperienced reporter.  The author seems unaware that her failure to challenge the narrative provided by her source, and her perspective as an uninformed non-disabled person, impair her ability to identify the points of conflict, investigate the story, and present a balanced and objective view of her subject.

The reporter describes the symptoms of Mr. Hoskins’ disability using details that a nondisabled observer may consider negative or odd, listing “poor co-ordination, difficulty with fine motor tasks like eating or writing, changes in speech, involuntary back-and-forth eye movements and difficulty swallowing.” Journalistic guidelines discourage such specificity to avoid stereotyping, in the same way reporters are cautioned against describing the outfits worn by women politicians, or quoting non-standard grammar used by people of colour.

Focusing on Mr. Hoskins’ characteristics misleads the reader and distracts from the authentic source of his difficulties.  For example, the author states: “The condition affected his behaviour as well; inappropriate interjections into conversations and no filter meant inappropriate comments and lots of social problems.”  In fact, these “social problems” are more likely rooted in ignorance, discrimination, and bullying by non-disabled people, as well as poor health care (due to misdiagnosis) and inadequate supports to enable Michael Hoskins to be integrated in his community.

The reporter’s limited perspective prevents her from looking objectively at the events that led to Mr. Hoskins’ euthanasia.  She didn’t inquire as to why a nursing home placement was deemed necessary after “he fell and knocked himself out.”  She missed the opportunity to explore the deeper questions raised by Mr. Hoskins’ decision to request and receive MAiD.  She didn’t ask why Mr. Hoskins said he would “rather starve to death” than use a feeding tube; she simply accepted the underlying assumption that it’s better to be dead than disabled. If the reporter had approached the story with a more open mind, she might have asked why Mr. Hoskins’ doctor believed euthanasia was the only solution to the problems he faced.

The journalist quotes Lisa’s summary of the problem: “a lifetime of not having any choices of his own to make, because his disease either dictated it or his situation dictated that someone else needed to make those choices for him.” Interviewing other disabled people could have exposed the journalist to the social model of disability; the idea that many problems associated with disability stem from discrimination and barriers in the environment.

The article quotes Lisa’s account of Mr. Hoskins’ fear of losing capacity: “Michael didn’t want to spend the rest of his life not tasting his food or needing a nurse beside him just to have a drink of water. He didn’t want to get to the point where he couldn’t go to the bathroom by himself.”  The author fails to point out that grief over loss of capacity and negative views about disability can be addressed through peer support, counseling and rehabilitation; none of these resources seem to have been provided to Mr. Hoskins.  The “loss of dignity” cited by many people who request euthanasia is often linked to squeamishness about urinary and bowel care.  Yet disabled people manage these and other bodily functions on a daily basis with the understanding that being assisted with personal care does not make one less of a person.

It’s clear that Mr. Hoskins and his family thought he would be better off dead than living with a more severe disability.  The reactions of one’s family play a crucial role (positive or negative) in adapting to a change in disability.  Had the author approached the story more objectively, she might have seen the conflict between the family’s stated “support” for Mr. Hoskins, and how their negative perception of his disability pushed him toward an unnecessary death.

Another issue worthy of investigation was the eligibility determination process.  The teleconference with the treatment team examining Mr. Hoskins’ request was called “intensive,” even though “an hour and a half conversation with their doctor was enough to show them Michael’s resolve.” An alert reporter would have known that eligibility for MAiD requires more than “resolve”; the article did not raise the questions of whether his natural death was reasonably foreseeable, whether he was offered suicide prevention services, whether he was subject to “external pressure” or if he received effective palliative care.

Mr. Hoskins was clearly fed up with the constant discrimination and other barriers he encountered. Yet the journalist didn’t ask why he wasn’t given tools to remove or work around those barriers.  Why wasn’t he connected to other disabled people who could help him adjust to his body’s changes?

Lisa’s description of the morning of her brother’s death deserves a deeper examination: “He was in a lot of pain at that time and the choking was quite scary for him. From the morning to the time we waited for the doctor to get there, he choked [about] half a dozen times.” Where was the pain relief? Where were the interventions to prevent choking and make him comfortable?

The Saskatchewan Leader-Post editors who approved this piece should think about its potential effects. In 2008, the World Health Organization released guidelines for media professionals who cover suicide. Some of their tips for responsible coverage include:

  • “Avoid language which sensationalizes or normalizes suicide, or presents it as a solution to problems.”
  • “Avoid explicit description of the method used in a completed or attempted suicide.”
  • “Avoid providing detailed information about the site of a completed or attempted suicide.”
  • “Word headlines carefully.” (The first three words of the headline in question – “Dying with dignity” – omit the truth that it is possible to live with both disability and dignity at the same time!)

This story violates all of the above standards. It idealizes the assisted suicide process while painting a bleak picture of life with a disability. Disabled readers who feel trapped in a variety of difficult situations may be prompted to follow Mr. Hoskins’ path and end their lives, especially when they cannot access necessary supports.

Michael Hoskins’ life and death should not be used to promote a procedure that discriminates against disabled Canadians.