Christian ethics has long supported disability justice. Today, we need to do more.

(RNS) — I co-wrote this month’s column with Meghan Schrader, academic enrichment assistant at the E4texas program at the University of Texas at Austin, who has served as an affiliate faculty member in disability studies at the University of New Hampshire and on the board of the Boston chapter of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. She is the recipient of the 2018-2019 Quell Foundation Fighter scholarship, for people who have survived severe mental illness.

Three decades ago, the American Civil Liberties Union released a statement opposing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1997 Glucksberg decision, which overturned a lower court’s attempt to establish an expansive right to euthanasia. Disturbingly, the ACLU’s response from the time mentions the views of thinkers in ancient Greece and Rome to argue that the practice of assisted suicide was “deeply rooted in our country’s history and traditions.”

The ACLU created its disability rights division in 2012, 92 years after the group’s founding and more than a decade after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. But its statement makes clear that its concept of disability rights is timeless. It’s true that Greek and Roman philosophers wanted disabled people to kill themselves for the good of society and that this antipathy toward people with disabilities is a powerful force today. It’s more evidence for Louise Perry’s argument that society is “repaganizing.” 

Many proponents of assisted suicide frame their campaign as a fight against supposed regressive Christian ideals. The church does resist this practice, of course, but the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of People with Disabilities, in its 2021 statement on assisted suicide, also makes the equal right of disabled people to live the foundation of all other disability rights.

But while the idea that disabled people enjoy the right to live with dignity on an equal basis with others is not unique to Christianity, and it should be acknowledged that many disabled people have been traumatized by individuals and communities claiming to be Christian, Western Christianity has been a bulwark against what Pope Francis calls our “throwaway culture,” in which disabled populations are marginalized.

Coming not so long after some of the ancient Roman philosophers, early Christians had an anthropology that included people with disabilities, not least because Christ himself directed much of his ministry to them. This early church imitation of Christ manifested itself in several ways, especially in their refusal to participate in the then common practice of discarding disabled newborns.

But “not killing” is obviously the bare minimum we can do to resist throwaway culture’s nefarious impact on disabled populations. Catholics and others must fight for a broader ideal: disability justice.

First, we must dramatically improve our special education system to allow disabled people to grow up to get good paying jobs. It’s been shown that in some places those who cannot afford medical care are sometimes left no option but to pursue medical assistance in dying — a phenomenon known as the “poverty to MAiD pipeline.”

We should also support bipartisan efforts to raise the federal special education student achievement standard from Free Appropriate Public Education to Maximum Feasible Benefit and apply this requirement to publicprivate and parochial schools. Disability history must also be added to all school history curricula to improve social representation of disabled people and educate future generations about the disability rights movement.

We must also focus explicitly on economic justice. No disabled person should make less than minimum wage for their labor. They can also be better sustained by a more streamlined process of qualifying for long-term services and supports, food stamps and other forms of social assistance that many people with disabilities rely on. The process of qualifying for these programs is overly bureaucratic and underfunded. 

Even as many people, disabled and nondisabled, tend to view suicide as acceptable if the victim has disabilities, suicide prevention programs seem to ignore their plight. There are very few of these resources for disabled people. If we are against assisted suicide, we must show our support for more traditional suicide prevention programs for disabled people and make it easier for people with disabilities to access suicide prevention care. 

Lastly, disability justice means putting aside political differences and working with people of differing perspectives, especially when it comes to culture war issues. The conflict between traditional Christian and more progressive approaches on abortion and human sexuality can render us too alienated to come together on issues we agree on. We must put the issues that divide us aside to join together in the fight for disability justice. 

One in 4 adults in the United States is living with disability. They have had enough with a throwaway culture that sees them as disposable. Many of our laws and other policies have not been updated from a time when the disabled were discarded into institutions marked by abuse and neglect. This is an urgent moment to act on behalf of a population that bears the face of Christ in a special way as the least ones, those who are marginalized from the rest of the culture. 

And this, again, requires much more than “not killing.” It means active movement to make sure these populations receive what they are owed. It means active movement for disability justice.

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