Building Bridges Between the Civil Rights Movements of People with Disabilities and Those with Terminal Illness

Kathryn L. Tucker


The movement for disability rights in the United States is grounded on a bedrock commitment to empowering the individual with autonomy and independence. Despite this foundation, a sharp line has been drawn by much of the disability advocacy community when it comes to the autonomy of a mentally competent terminally ill patient to choose a more peaceful death through aid in dying. This exercise of autonomy has largely been opposed by the disability advocacy community. This Article proposes that given the common principles shared by these two social justice movements and evidence from two decades of open practice in the United States that shows that no risk arises for people with disabilities when aid in dying is available, it is time for the disability advocacy community to reexamine and evolve its position on aid in dying. This evolution has the potential to benefit both advocacy communities.

Part I discusses the principles common to the movements for disability rights and end-of-life liberty, demonstrating how they are virtually identical. Part II reviews arguments advanced by proponents of end-of-life liberty in favor of empowering terminally ill patients with more options, specifically including aid in dying, and those advanced by disability rights advocates against this position. In Part III, the data from nearly twenty years of openly practiced aid in dying in the United States is reviewed. Particular focus is given to how data regarding this practice relates to persons with disabilities. Finally, Part IV suggests that it is timely and strategic for the disability advocacy community to reconsider its opposition to aid in dying, and it sets forth indicators that such reconsideration is emerging. 

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