Last year I lost my father-in-law to terminal esophageal cancer. He had been having difficulties swallowing food in the fall of 2014. As ingesting food gradually became more and more difficult, he was admitted into the hospital in February 2015 and promptly received the endoscopy he had been scheduled for on a later date. At first glance, the doctors immediately determined the tumour in his throat was cancerous.
Long story short, after several complications with in-hospital treatment, he passed away within two months after his diagnosis. Through enduring constant pain from being poked and prodded, the thought of death ending his suffering appealed to him more and more. We knew his time with us was limited, so his situation became more about quality of life than quantity of life. But despite knowing his time on earth was running short, he wanted to spend as much time with his wife, son, daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren as possible in the midst of his suffering. Admittedly, I am not very well-read when it comes to biology or medical-related issues. But this was my father-in-law’s choice to persevere as long as he was able to, and understandably not everyone experiences suffering the same way.
My second youngest brother has lower-functioning autism. Ever since his diagnosis at an early age, my parents devoted their lives to ensure he received the proper care at home, at school and as an adult during respite. They continue to do so to this very day, hoping one day he will transfer to a group home but still unsure whether or not to trust a system subject to abuse. I’ve experienced frequent bullying and harassment in elementary school and junior high – sometimes because I had a brother with autism. There were some occasions when some of my classmates poked fun at me while asking why my parents even bothered to look after him. Provided my peers were young and uninformed at the time, they probably did not know the ramifications of their words. However, nobody forgets this type of flippant disrespect, especially when it is directed towards the people you love. Statements like these imply that my brother is a burden on society because of his disability. Although my brother’s autism is a part of who he is, the reality is his worth is not defined by his disability. He loves his family. He loves to create artwork. He loves animals. And now that he has two little nephews, he absolutely loves them too! He collects hundreds of movies and cartoon shows on DVD and VHS and often tries to lend my kids something to watch whenever he sees them. If anyone is going to tell me and my family that my brother is a burden on society, they can go screw themselves. I will not waste time associating with or entertaining a person with such a sick worldview.
My brother has a very limited ability to express himself emotionally and vocally, due to the severity of his disability. He suffers anxiety and quite often has spurts of anger and emotional meltdowns. He is in his mid-twenties and my two-year-old son has already surpassed him developmentally. Even the concept of death is extremely foreign to him. When my grandma passed away, we brought him to the viewing at the funeral home knowing we had to explain to him our close relative was gone and never coming back. Using a scene from Disney’s Snow White with her in the glass casket, my family tried to communicate to him that Grandma fell asleep – but this time she would never wake up. I don’t like to think about it, but if there happened to be a situation where his health would begin to deteriorate, trying to figure out the source of his discomfort would become a wild guessing game. Because he is unable to grasp the notion of choosing assisted dying or even the finality of death, it would not be anybody’s place to decide for my brother what he wants other than for his pain to be treated. He has every right as a human being to live, regardless of his developmental disability.
It seems as though the message being unintentionally conveyed in the recent assisted dying legislation is people are of no value and are a hindrance to society in the midst of their suffering. If, for example, a person with a mental disability felt as though they would be better off dead when their current mood or ailment could very well be treated or changed for the better, how is it right to even present the option to them? And in cases where patients (for example, persons in a coma) cannot express nor decide for themselves whether to continue receiving treatment or life support, what right does anybody have to decide their fate for them? If there is a chance of recovering from terminal sickness, regardless of how the person feels in the moment, what would be more reasonable? Making the person feel as comfortable as possible in the midst of their suffering, or putting an end to their life without considering the possibility of an even slightly miraculous improvement? It is quite common for everybody to choose the less-painful option, but I think it’s easy to forget that there are certain types of suffering we cannot avoid.
As someone who witnessed my firstborn son’s birth via C-section, seeing life come out of life is something that will haunt me forever. There was a time when I believed myself to be a postmodern feminist until a friend asked me how I felt about ending the life of a human lacking the ability to speak for itself. For the record, I absolutely believe women are to be treated equally and respectfully with the same rights as men. I understand that rape culture is rampant because of men who lack self-control and view the opposite sex as objects of gratification rather than people with lives, feelings, families and friends. I understand the frustrations of pro-choice advocates for constantly hearing the same argument that every case of unwanted pregnancy is the result of irresponsible behaviour on the woman’s part when, in reality, every situation is different. Blaming the victim has never proven to be helpful. Some pregnancies happen as a result of a manipulation of consent. Some people feel they are forced into sex because they are so afraid of experiencing the consequences of not following through with their partner’s desires – whether it may be disappointment, anger, emotional or physical abuse. And some, more often than we realize, are forced unwillingly into sexual intercourse – which is the very definition of rape. But even granted that every situation is different, I cannot accept the notion that an unborn baby’s worth is defined by how it is conceived.
I’ve always been inclined to fix things with my hands. I wish I was able to conjure up easy solutions to every situation as though I were doing construction maintenance, but I can’t. But as a male, one thing I can say with confident conviction is that women are right to be angry at men. Feminism is truly the result of our shortcomings as men when it comes to how we have treated women throughout history. But does this mean that access to abortion and assisted dying is a step in the right direction, or is it a band-aid solution that overlooks the source of the real problem? If unruly men without principles are the reason why so many women suffer and consider abortion or suicide, then maybe the problem needs to be addressed by creating a culture that values and respects all human life. If this is the case, then why not start with the men?
From my understanding, until we as men acknowledge our shortcomings and responsibility to care for and treat all human life with dignity, the cycle will continue. No matter what kind of band-aid solutions our governments permit for society, there will be no stoppage to rape, abortion, child poverty, divorce, fatherlessness, homelessness or suicide as long as men are not willing to stand up for the value and well-being of all human life. If it were up to me, both abortion and assisted dying would be illegal, but I am also aware of the fact that criminalizing these things will not prevent anyone from personally seeking out back-alley abortions or attempting suicide by other means. I personally don’t believe any woman would seek out abortion without a reason; whether it may be because of fear of family or societal expectations, financial security or quality of life. But no matter how we look at these situations, for every pregnant woman there are always two lives at stake. If a woman has a reason to consider an abortion, then where is the man in her life to help give her a reason not to?
This is why women are right to be angry at men…. because we have failed them.
If there is a reason for the rapid degradation of human society, it is because there are not enough men who are courageous enough to stand up for those who are struggling, and humble enough to listen to their voices. There are not enough good boyfriends or husbands who put themselves second and build up their girlfriends and wives as the precious human beings they are. There are not enough good fathers who display their selfless affection towards their wives and children so their daughters may see how a man should treat a woman, so their sons can see how a woman can glow and flourish when a man loves his family more than he loves himself. There are not enough men who love their own fathers and mothers, regardless of how broken their families are, to show their children how to love and respect their elders and to reciprocate that same care to the ones who taught us how to survive and endure everyday life. There are not enough men who are willing to either consider or accept consequences to every action as though each were a drop that ripples in a pool of water, and knowing everything we do affects everyone one way or another. There are not enough men in the world who are willing to suffer for the sake of the people around them.
My conscience will not allow me to accept the notion that people’s rights and freedoms should be protected at the expense of other human lives, whether or not it is legal or accepted by a majority. But more than that, I feel on behalf of all men that it is up to us to accept responsibility for the well-being of all human life. Whether it’s the rape victim who is afraid of how her family will treat her, or the disabled person who suffers terminal illness combined with anxiety and cannot see beyond the present moment, we as the protectors and providers we call ourselves are responsible for their well-being.
I write this blog entry, not only out of grieving the loss of my father-in-law and praying for the well-being of my disabled brother, but also out of grieving for the next generations to come. I worry for my children as they get older and witness more and more of their friends and neighbours freely embracing a culture of death. I am disappointed that our governments continue to endorse the ‘easy way out’ rather than improving access to palliative care or educating our public by raising awareness on social justice issues. But because it is now the law of the land, this is the framework we are forced to work with.
So to all you men out there, if we want to create a counter-culture that values all forms of human life, we need to grow a pair. It all goes back to how we treat our wives, our mothers and fathers, our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters, our elders, our friends and our neighbours. We need to become more aware and understand how every action bears consequences and affects everyone, especially those who are most vulnerable.
After all, the blood is on our hands.