Today’s culture is strangely paradoxical when it comes to disability and mental illness. On the one hand, medical advances have greatly increased both the duration and quality of life. There has been massive improvement in treatments, therapies, and medication. The Americans With Disabilities Act was signed into law to protect people with disabilities from discrimination, and now more than ever, people with disabilities and mental illness have been positively featured in the media, slowly erasing some of the past stigmas.
Conversely, though, babies with disabilities who are diagnosed prenatally are at very high risk of being aborted. People with mental illness still feel shamed and keep quiet about their condition. And with assisted suicide becoming more culturally accepted, it’s becoming more common for people with mental illnesses and disabilities to be euthanized. They’re often still seen as burdens on society. Nowhere was that attitude more on display than in a recent essay published by XO Jane. The article, written by Amanda Lauren, was titled “My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing,” and was yanked from the website after readers were predictably outraged.
In the essay, Lauren complained about her friend Leah, who drowned in a bathtub. “It’s hard to share my thoughts and tell Leah’s story — or at least her story from my perspective — and not judge myself on some level for exploiting an awful situation,” Lauren wrote. “It was as if mental illness took demonic possession over her.” She explained that the “real” Leah had a beautiful heart, was caring and a good listener, and was “up for any kind of adventure.” Leah’s younger sister died at 19 of cancer, and Lauren said that she suspected something was “off” with Leah as an adult for some seemingly odd reasons.
Lauren complained that Leah’s apartment was messy, that she never had real boyfriends, asked a guy out that Lauren had a crush on, and got fired from a job that Lauren helped her to get. Lauren said that she blocked her on social media and didn’t speak to her for years… until she got curious and wanted to snoop. She found that her friend had been struggling with anorexia and mental illness. She didn’t have a support system. Then, Leah died… and Lauren’s response was incredibly callous:
She supposedly hit her head and drowned in a bathtub. Sadly, I really believe knowing who Leah used to be, that she would have wanted to die that way. Big and dramatic with an obit in the New York Times. Her better self would have been strangely proud. She would have laughed. Then again, it doesn’t really matter how Leah died. She might have drowned, but schizoaffective disorder was the hand that kept her head below water.
It sounds horrible to say, but her death wasn’t a tragedy, her life was. Her sister died when she was in college. Schizoaffective disorder robbed her of reaching her potential. There were some other things along the way. She was alone and terribly unhappy when she died. Leah with the big heart didn’t deserve that. Judging Facebook pages, we all compare ourselves to other people, what they have, what they don’t, and their accomplishments. This girl had nothing to live for.
I realize there are plenty of seriously mentally ill people who take meds and get better. I don’t think the prognosis for all people diagnosed with severe mental illness is death. There are people who learn to manage and live happy and productive lives, but with parents on the other side of the country and no local support system, Leah would never be one of those people. What would the rest of her life been like? She would have either been institutionalized or a major burden on her family. There was just no way she would have survived on her own. Drowning to death was relatively painless compared to what she had to endure in life.
Not surprisingly, the internet erupted. Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon called it “the worst personal essay ever.” Melissa McEwen, who has written for XO Jane before, published an open letter, calling Lauren’s article dangerous vowing to never submit anything to the site ever again. Lindsey Ellefson slammed Lauren for glorifying her friend’s death. Even Stassa Edwards at Jezebel called it terrible.
They were all right to be outraged; Lauren’s essay was horrible. But it also echoes many of the same sentiments that are frequently found among people who defend abortion and assisted suicide. The idea that Leah’s death was “practically painless” compared to her life is the same argument made by countless “death with dignity” advocates, who think that it’s preferable for someone suffering a serious illness — whether it be cancer or a mental health disorder — to kill themselves rather than “suffer.” The same argument is made for preborn babies with disabilities, where killing them in the womb is said to be the compassionate, loving thing to do. (As you can see from this video below, narrated by former abortionist Dr. Anthony Levatino, abortion is anything but compassionate for the preborn child.)
Lauren was rightly derided for saying her friend’s life was a waste because she had a mental illness, that a life with any suffering in it was a life not worth living. Many of the people offended by her essay, though, are people who also support and defend both abortion and assisted suicide, making the same arguments that Lauren did. Why is there a difference between the two? Why is it offensive when Lauren says something so callous and cruel about a friend of hers, yet perfectly acceptable for pro-abortion writers to advocate for a preborn baby to be killed because of a disability, or for someone to say that someone should be euthanized if they feel depressed and want to die? Logically, it makes no sense.
Perhaps it’s because Lauren put such a human face on the issue. This was a real person, who had family and friends who had to, on top of their grief, contend with their loved one’s memory being dragged through the gutter and hearing that it’s better that she’s dead. It’s much easier to be pro-death when it’s just an intangible figure, after all; when you have to face the actual humanity at stake, it’s much easier to see it as the tragedy that it is.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 18% of Americans experience mental illness; 19% of Americans have disabilities. These are people whose lives have inherent value and dignity, who deserve compassion and respect and the very best medical care possible. They don’t deserve to be exploited in gossipy essays, and it’s certainly not something to celebrate when they die. These people are not better off dead. They are not burdens who should be discarded if possible. And while seeing so many people come to their defense in this instance, it would come across as much more believable if they likewise would fight for the people who are killed when they are at their most vulnerable.
Until we refuse to allow preborn babies to be killed simply because they have disabilities, or to say that people struggling with mental health disorders should not be able to be manipulated into being euthanized, there will never truly be equality for them.