The first day of March has double significance for me as a survivor of open-heart surgery and a disabled senior.
On March 1, 2018, a surgeon stopped, repaired and restarted my heart. I began a six-month recovery at the loving hands of my daughter, who left her job to be my full-time caregiver. For me, it’s a triumphant anniversary of a successful operation.
But March 1 is also the Disability Day of Mourning, a day of despair that I observe with the disabled community, when we recommit ourselves to the sadly necessary task of defending our lives. The date commemorates the murder of 22-year-old George Hodgins, an autistic man who lived in California and was killed by his caretaker mother in 2012. (After shooting her son, Hodgins’ mother shot herself.)
I’m sure we all sympathize with family caretakers who devote themselves night and day to the needs of a loved one. Were there times my daughter lost patience and felt exhausted, alone, frightened, trapped or angry? Absolutely. When private caregiver relief is too expensive, and when government relief is minimal or non-existent, family caretakers have every right to protest the ebbing loss of their own lives as they care for their loved ones.
But there must be a firm line drawn where our sympathy ends. Nothing gives anyone the right to harm an elderly, ill or disabled person, no matter how frustrating care work can be and no matter how much discomfort the ill or disabled person may be experiencing. And we must never sympathize with a family member who takes a disabled loved one’s life.
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Unfortunately, this kind of murder happens all the time — once a week in the United States alone, according to the Ruderman Foundation. Canadian numbers are not as easy to come by, but the Disability Day of Mourning website commemorates 36 Canadian victims.
On March 1, memorials are held for victims of filicide all around the world. Legally speaking, filicide is the murder of a child by a parent. In the disability community, the word has a wider meaning. “When we say ‘filicide,’” the Disability Day of Mourning website explains, “we are talking about a pattern of violence that starts when a parent or caregiver murders their child or adult relative with a disability.” That pattern of violence continues, the website states, “in how these murders are reported, discussed, justified, excused, and replicated.”
Canada’s most famous case of filicide has been excused and justified for decades. In October 1993, Robert Latimer murdered his 12-year-old disabled daughter, Tracy, and claimed it was an act of love. Latimer received a life sentence in 2001. He served seven years, then won parole. In 2018, still insisting he’d done nothing wrong, he applied for a full pardon.
As Latimer applied for his pardon, the Globe and Mail ran opinion pieces with opposing takes on his case, one of which calmly argued why Latimer deserved exoneration. Running these columns framed the issue of child murder as one where there are two equally reasonable sides. But it’s only a debate if disabled people are considered burdens, if we aren’t seen as fully human.
Even as I wrote this article in the last days of 2019, my social media feeds were full of abled friends and family sympathizing with a New York Times article that called a husband shooting his disabled 80-year-old wife in the throat “a love story.”
Filicide is never love; it’s hate. If little girls like Tracy are what the Nazis called “life undeserving of life,” if disabled senior women like me are broken animals that “caring” men can freely put down, that’s not only murder; it’s eugenics. On March 1, we must all mourn our murdered, demand our equal humanity and challenge the discourses that legitimize violence against disabled people.
This column first appeared in Broadview’s April 2020 issue with the title “No mercy for ‘mercy killings.’”
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