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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Stephen Hawking on Assisted Suicide

A documentary is going to be released about the life of Stephen Hawking. In an interview that  I assume was designed to spark interest and publicity Hawking lends his support to assisted suicide. A brief clip of Hawking is being widely discussed on-line and in the media. Hawking is without question a cultural icon. He has appeared on Star Trek and the Simpsons. He wrote an international best seller, A Brief History of Time, and is often referred to as one of the smartest people in the world.  I will freely admit I do not understand what he writes about. Black holes and the cosmos are well beyond my interests and ability. I tried to read A Brief History of Time. I never got past page 25. 

I have paid close attention to what Hawking has to say about disability.  In this regard, Hawking has little to offer. I find his social commentary about disability or anything else for that matter within the realm of the social sciences decidedly unimpressive. In the brief clip available Hawking supports the "right to die" but only if the person involved is part of the decision making process. Here is the quote the media will undoubtedly focus on: 


"I think those who have a terminal illness and are in great pain should have the right to choose to end their lives, and those who help them should be free from prosecution... There must be safeguards that the person concerned genuinely wants to end their life and are not being pressurized into it or have it done without their knowledge and consent as would have been the case with me."

The reference to "the case with me" refers to when he had pneumonia in 1985. He was put on a vent and recalls his wife could have turned off the "life support machine". It is pronouncements such as these that make me wonder just how much thought if any he has given to the social circumstances of people with a disability. Hawking is obviously a historic figure in theoretical physics. He is also the most widely recognized man in the world with a serious disability. As such, his words carry great weight. Sadly, his observations about disability and assisted suicide are in my estimation the words of a very privileged man who has led a privileged life.  For decades he has lived the life of a greatly admired intellectual. His concerns and life are limited to the cosmos. Thus when he speaks about disability I often groan inwardly. Even a brilliant man has flaws. For instance he stated:

If one is disabled, one should concentrate on the things one can do and not regret the things one cannot do. In fact, my disability has been a help in a way, it has freed me from teaching or sitting on boring committees and given me more time to think and do research.Theoretical physics is one of the few fields in which being disabled is no handicap - it is all in the mind.

For Hawking, life is indeed all in the mind. I do not get a sense he has any contact or interest in other people with a disability. I do not think he has any interest in disability rights. This is of course beyond criticism. He can do whatever he likes with his life. The same can be sad for me. But when I read that his disability freed him from teaching or boring academic meetings I shake my head. Talk about being part of the Ivory Tower! Not many academics live in this rarified realm. I am equally sure he is very confident safe guards will protect people who might be pushed or encouraged to end their life. I do not share this optimism. I live in a world where disability based bias is rampant. I live in a world that remains largely inaccessible. I live in a world where health care providers express great angst about the cost of making facilities and private practices accessible. I live in a world of tight budgets and too often see the first line item cut pertains to equal access. At the age of 71, I have no hope Hawking will turn his superior intellect to the sort of real world worries other people with a disability occupy themselves with. In fact, when I watched the short clip of Hawking I recalled an anecdote I read about Dwight Eisenhower. When Eisenhower retired he realized he had not answered or picked up a phone in decades. Apparently generals and presidents do not answer the phone or make phone calls. Eisenhower  was supposedly startled the first time he had to make a phone call on his own. He had forgotten what a dial tone sounded like and had to ask his wife for help. Hawking is a man of such privilege. When Hawking talks of the cosmos he is the man. When Hawking talks about disability or assisted suicide he is a mere mortal. As flawed as me and any other human.

14 comments:

Susan Fernbach said...

Mark O'Brien, a journalist disabled by polio, wrote about his attempt to interview Stephen Hawking here: http://web.archive.org/web/20110515075847/http://www.pacificnews.org/marko/hawking.html

Basically, the interview was such a disaster (vapid or nearly irrelevant answers) that Mark ended up writing about the process of getting the interview....

Julie H. Rose said...

So interesting. Hawking is a perfect example of the specialist, corporate capitalism's perfect citizen. The specialist knows nothing outside his field of expertise. In Hawkings' case, this means he does not even know of himself as a being within the company of other beings. He has become the perfect cog in a seamlessly working machine, and as the machine has worked so well for him, he assumes it is a good machine. It is not for most.

william Peace said...

Susan, I read the article by O'Brien a very long time ago and had totally forgotten about it. Thanks for the reminder and link. It reminded me of McBryde Johnson's essay in the NYT magazine section.
Julie, Hawking is about as specialized as a specialist can be. I have no idea what his ties are to the corporate world. I would like to think he is simply an ivory tower scholar with little ability to interact with us regular folk. What I find remarkable is the number of people who read his Brief History of Time. I could not get past page 25.

Julie H. Rose said...

The Ivory Towers are all funded by corporations. Whether that is public knowledge is another story.

william Peace said...

Julie, Yes the Ivory Tower is funded by corporations. But universities are supposedly non profit institutions. Flawed as they are, universities do support dissent.

Julie H. Rose said...

i recommend reading the chapter entitled "The Illusion of Wisdom" in Chris Hedges' "Empire of Illusion."

Universities do allow dissent, up to a point. Identity politics dominate over a class based understanding of oppression, which contributes to the oppressed continuing to fight amongst themselves instead of those with real power. Those who offer seriously dissenting views that pose a threat to the assumption of capitalism's supremacy face challenges including passive censorship (not getting published, not being given tenure) unless they are as well known as Noam Chomsky.

Lynn said...

Hawking actually provides a really interesting case study in the decoupling of disability from its usual social repercussions. It is a rare person who has lived the experience of severe disability, yet has *not* experienced having the value of his life questioned or outright dismissed by others, has not been treated as if his opinion carried less weight (quite the opposite, as we're seeing), and has not had to fight for the right to speak for himself in spite of communication barriers. The great respect that is afforded him on account of his intellect and his accomplishment is deserved; but it has insulated him from what most people with disabilities experience in society. It's no wonder that he cannot relate to the implicit threat that is so obvious to many whose lives are overtly devalued by those around them. A person who always been surrounded by respect and support for his own self-determination cannot fully appreciate where his own autonomy leaves off and the societal affirmation that so many others lack begins. He has little reason to feel vulnerable when "death with dignity" is discussed, and he cannot speak for those whose visceral experience of that vulnerability needs to be heard.

Middle Child said...

Was shocked by Hawkings statements... thought he would be in sync sadly not>

william Peace said...

Lynn, As usual spot on comments. Hawking will indeed never have a person question his quality of life or status as a human being. This has insulated him from the gritty reality most people with a disability live with.
Middlechild, I was not surprised at all. Hawking's observations r.e. disability have never been insightful. I doubt he has given assisted suicide much thought. Steve Drake really took Hawking to task the other day. I thought he was too harsh. I was wrong.

Claire said...

Wow, the comments this blog gets are as good as the posts. Fascinating!

william Peace said...

Claire, One of the reasons I so enjoy writing this blog is the outstanding comments that are routinely posted.

Middle Child said...

Since this, I have had people say to me and I feel it is pointed - as they know my thoughts - that if Hawking said its okay then he would know... just because you are intelligent in one aspect gives you no more intelligence in other areas than the rest of us.

There is something very ugly and cold about purposely setting up to kill someone and making it out to be mercy... mercy for extreme pain is adequate pain relief - not to be pressured to die.

am getting sick of the word "dignity" being cornered by these people

Jodi said...

I completely agree about him not understanding the position of privilege he speaks from, and I was struck by something similar in this piece http://abcnews.go.com/Health/stephen-hawking-flip-assisted-suicide-divides-die-movement/story?id=20291577 where a proponent of assisted suicide says "we couldn't imagine a person with more experience with medical care who is more vulnerable." The view is of disability, vulnerability and assisted suicide as all purely medical things. Stephen Hawking has access to all the care and equipment he needs and a recognition of the value of his existence from society at large: it's very frightening that people can be so blinkered as to see nothing of that and how different things are for other people.

But for me the most obvious problem with what he said is the simple logical flaw. How can you possibly think "We don't let animals suffer, so why humans?" is a sound argument while also saying it must be the person's choice? It's precisely the argument many people would've used for turning off his ventilator. His view is being given special weight because of his position as an extraordinary thinker and yet his reasoning on this is utterly dire.

Sharon said...

Hawking seems to be imagining a fictional world in which the safeguards he lays out as the condition for supporting assisted suicide do indeed exist.

In his imaginary world, Hawking is able to justify support for a right to assisted suicide. In the real world, his conditions for such support cannot be met and his comments actually form an argument against assisted suicide.