Protecting the Lives of Citizens Who Are Mentally Retarded (1973)


American Association for Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (formerly American Association on Mental Deficiency and the American Association on Mental Retardation)


CSEP Library

Date Approved: 

November 1973

Other Versions: 

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Protecting the Lives of Citizens Who Are Mentally Retarded


Over the past few years, there have been widely publicized reports of instances in which infants with surgically correctable conditions have been permitted to die because, in addition to their medical disorders, they were diagnosed, or suspected to be, mentally retarded. These infants were allowed to die by the conscious withholding of medical or surgical treatment.

In addition, bills have been introduced in several state legislatures which would -permit physicians to withhold life-sustaining measures and authorize relatives to consent to such steps in the case of "terminally ill" patients including, at least by inference, severely mentally retarded citizens. Implicit in the arguments of proponents of these so-called "Death with Dignity" proposals is that the life of a severely handicapped individual is essentially meaningless and that they constitute a severe economic drain on the resources of their families and society.

As the oldest, and largest national organization representing workers in the field of mental retardation, the American Association on Mental Deficiency is deeply concerned about these developments and feels compelled to articulate its views on the right of every retarded person to a full life. This statement is intended to supplement and elaborate on an earlier Association policy statement concerning the basic rights of retarded persons.(1)


It is the position of the American Association on Mental Deficiency that the existence of mental retardation is no Justification for terminating the life of any human being, or for permitting such a life to be terminated either directly or through the withholding of life-sustaining procedures.


In developing the above position the Association has taken into account the following considerations:

  1. It is a basic tenet of our American constitutional system that all citizens are entitled to equal rights under the law. The right to preservation of life is among the basic protections guaranteed to every citizen under the Constitution of the United States. Therefore, it follows that all citizens, including the mentally retarded, should have equal access to current medical, surgical, social and other life-sustaining procedures and be recognized as human beings with value and meaning to their lives, regardless of their diagnosis or prognosis.
  2. The rapid expansion in professional knowledge and technology is making it possible for more retarded persons to improve their capabilities. For example, it has been repeatedly demonstrated that the severely and profoundly retarded can benefit from habilitative services and, thus, enjoy fuller and more rewarding lives than once thought possible.
  3. With the exception of certain classes of criminals, as a society we have established no ethical basis for deciding who should live and who should die. Criteria for evaluating the relative worth of a human life simply does not exist. Therefore, any attempt to determine individual worth on the basis of economic or social consideration is invalid.

Rights of Retarded Persons.
Adopted November 1973