Used Foot Wear

by Dick Sobsey

(13 June 2000) — As we in Canada approach next week's Supreme Court hearing of Robert Latimer's "Mercy Killing" of his daughter Tracy who had cerebral palsy, the old "walk a mile in his shoes" arguments are starting to resurface. This argument, commonly used in Mercy Killings, simply says that we can't judge someone's actions if we have not experienced the situations they have been in. In the Latimer case, his lawyer openly suggested this shortly after the initial arrest to build public sympathy.

Since then, it has been espoused by a wide variety of editorialists, lawyers, and members of the general public. More surprisingly, it has been hauled out by some bioethicists who typically pride themselves on logic. While this "walk in his shoes" notion, often proclaimed as "walked in his moccasins" by those who want to add a folksy touch may have some emotional appeal, it certainly cannot pass the scrutiny of logic.

If we are to take the notion seriously, it seems to say that only those who have very similar experiences can judge actions to be right or wrong. In this particular case it would mean only those who have experienced what Robert Latimer experienced can judge whether it was right or wrong to kill his daughter. This raises the question of what would constitute a like experience.

For example, I have been a father to two children with severe disabilities. Does this mean that I have walked in his shoes? Does this mean I know what it is like to be him? Does this give me a special right to judge? Should he have a right to be judged by a jury of his peers that is composed solely of fathers of kids with severe disabilities? The answer to all these questions is no. I cannot imagine what it is like to be him, so according to this argument, I cannot judge him.

The truth is that according to his argument, I can't really judge anyone, and neither can anyone else. While I can't pretend to know what is like to be Mr. Latimer just because I am the father of a child with a disability, I know even less about what it would be like to be Clifford Olson, Ted Bundy, or Josef Mengele. Most of us cannot imagine what it would be like to be serial killers or mass murderers, but society does not hesitate to judge them because of that. The logic that we cannot judge someone who is the father of a child with a severe disability because we haven't been there, but we can judge Olson, Mengele, or Bundy implies that we have walked in their shoes. If we admit that we have no idea of what it is like to be a compulsive pedophile, a sadistic rapist, or mass murderer, then the "walk in my shoes" argument would not allow us to judge or punish any of these individuals.

The hidden emotional appeal of applying the walk in my shoes argument to people who kill disabled children is quite the opposite. Rather than suggesting that we can't imagine what it is like to father such a child, it invites us to imagine that we are, and hopes that when we do imagine it, we will imagine that we might like to kill our children too.

Canadians with Disabilities Keep Close Watch on Latimer's Supreme Court Appeal

On 14 June 2000, the Supreme Court will hear Robert Latimer's appeal of his conviction and sentence for the murder of his disabled daughter seven years ago. Six organizations of people with disabilities and their families are jointly intervening to tell the Court that to grant a lesser sentence for the murder of a person with a disability (Tracy) would put many people at risk. CCD, Saskatchewan Voice of People with Disabilities (Sask Voice), Canadian Association for Community Living (CACL), People First Canada , DisAbled Women's Network Canada (DAWN), and People in Equal Participation (PEP) are asking the Court to deny Robert Latimer's appeal.

"To make an exception in sentence because the victim was disabled is to put our very lives at risk," said Paul Young of People First. "People with disabilities are citizens of this country too, and must be granted the same protection as other Canadians," said Pat Danforth representing CCD and Sask Voice. "Public and media support of Robert Latimer is a wake-up call for people with disabilities, our lives are still considered by many to be of less value," said Theresa Ducharme of PEP. Grant Mitchell, a parent of a child with a disability, said, "Tracy's disability must not be used to condone the taking of her life." "This case is not about pain, or mercy, it is about murder," said Cheryl Gulliver of CACL. Doreen Demas of DAWN stated, "No one has the right to judge the value of another person's life, this case demonstrates how negatively disability is viewed; this cannot go unchallenged."

Robert Latimer will argue he can be excused for killing his daughter, that he had the right to do as Tracy's father, and that the mandatory sentence of 10 years without parole would be cruel and unusual punishment. Canadians with disabilities need to be assured that their fundamental rights will be protected with the full weight of the law. To do otherwise is to deny people with disabilities across this country their citizenship.

The coalition also hopes to see a more positive portrayal of children like Tracy in the media. For whatever reason Tracy has not been portrayed as fully human, but as a child in constant pain and requiring significant supports. What has not been said is that Tracy went to school every day, she enjoyed family outings, she liked to be rocked. When Canadians become more aware of her as a person, the Canadian public will become more supportive of our view. "Her disability cannot be used as a justification for departing from fundamental constitutional values. She was a person first and that fact must not be obscured by the detail of her medical circumstances." (from the factum of the Disability Coalition)

Intervenor Organizations' Contacts:

Laurie Beachell, CCD, 204-947-0303.

Bev Prescott, Sasktachewan Voice, 306-569-3111.

Diane Richler, CACL, 416-661-9611.

Theresa Ducharme, PEP, 204-222-1162.

Kathy Marshall, DAWN, 204-726-1406.

Peter Park, People First, 416-441-1805.