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Killing people with disabilities as a lesser crime

In Ableism, Ableism Ethics and Governance and its intersection with Disability Ethics, Disability, Ethics, Law and public policy on December 3, 2008 at 8:41 pm

Is the killing of someone with a significant disability a lesser crime than killing someone considered to be fully able? “Mercy” Killing, euthanasia, compassionate homicide, and altruistic homicide are all terms that have been used to describe the killing of of one human being by another in order to  end suffering.  Thus they are considered justifiable or even heroic. Canada has considered a compassionate homicide law and Germany currently has a euthanasia or “mercy” killing law that limits the sentence of a convicted individual to five years if the motivation was to end suffering. 

Critics, however, suggest that such laws serve as the ultimate vehicle of ableism, by effectively making it a less serious crime for those considered to be able to kill those considered to have serious disabilities.  To try to answer this question, one might think of whether “mercy” killing or compassionate homicide might be extended to people without disabilities. Would society be willing to consider the killing of a homeless person to be motivated by compassion? Might a police officer who shot a criminal to death rather than make that individual suffer through disgrace and imprisonment be considered to have committed a mercy killing? Would an individual who kills an able bodied man, who asks to end his unhappy life, be considered compassionate?

Two recent mercy-killing trials in Germany and China, help provide answers. A German court ruled that the killing of Bernd Juergen Brandes could not be considered a mercy killing, even though he asked to be killed to end his miserable life, because he did not have a disability or illness. While a Chinese court freed a mother who killed her disabled daughter, who never asked to be killed because the daughter was “a “psychological burden.” 

These and other cases suggest that compassionate homicide simply makes killing people with disabilities into a less serious crime.

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  1. I am not sure what I think of hate crimes legislation, but I have to wonder how we got from such legislation for crimes against people with disabilities being proposed in the U.S. congress to the reality of lesser sentences for crimes against PWD rather than enhanced sentences.

  2. Hymes makes a good point; the contrast is striking. Perhaps if we just enforced the laws that we already have fairly, sentence enhancement would not be necessary. Nevertheless, personally, I do favor sentence enhancement in the case of bias crimes.

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