As we have our “national conversation” on legalized assisted suicide, some important social groups have been excluded. For example, both African-Americans and Latinos oppose assisted suicide by 2-1 margins.
Another ignored stakeholder is the array of generally progressive disability rights groups, which represent the population most threatened by the “quality of life” judgments inherent in assisted-suicide programs.
Disability rights opposition is based on the predictable and inevitable impact of assisted suicide laws on vulnerable populations. While Compassion & Choices and friendly media conflate social policy with one photogenic person’s choice, we look at the combustible mix of such ingredients as our for-profit health care system, rampant elder and disabled abuse, people in the grip of deep depression, financially motivated heirs, and the life-shortening guesswork inherent in “terminal diagnoses.” When the media repeats the falsehood that there have been no abuses in Oregon, we present evidence to the contrary.
Our opposition to assisted suicide has been consistent and effective, yet many media accounts delete us from the story. But when the current Assembly Bill was pulled for lack of votes in June, Newark Star-Ledger, reporter Susan K. Livio wrote , “Disability advocates, fearing the legislation could be manipulated to prematurely end patients’ lives, turned out in force to testify against the bill when it passed the Assembly Health and Senior Citizens Committee earlier this month.”
Livio’s was the only story in a major New Jersey paper that covered the June impasse, and was thereafter ignored. This follows the long-standing pattern of a flurry of promotional stories before assisted suicide consideration, followed by… nothing if the campaign fails.
The following op-ed, which first appeared in the Newark Star-Ledger on October 30, gives our side of the story.
The media is flush with the sympathetic story of Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old newlywed with aggressive brain cancer. Her video advocating expanded assisted suicide laws has been seen millions of times, prompting another push in the State Assembly to pass an assisted suicide bill.
When the focus is on an individual, assisted suicide can sound good – who’s against compassion or relieving suffering? But a closer look reveals that assisted suicide puts vulnerable people in mortal danger. The more people learn about the real-world implications of these bills, the more they oppose them. (Our group takes its name – Second Thoughts – from this fact). Last year, the Legislatures of New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut rejected assisted suicide bills.
The simple truth is that not all families are loving. Elder abuse is a nationally recognized epidemic. Every year, New Jersey elders suffer an estimated 175,000 cases of reported and unreported abuse, most by adult children and caregivers. Financial gain or emotional relief creates motives for steering someone toward death. The two witnesses to the death request could be an heir and the heir’s accomplice. Once the lethal prescription leaves the pharmacy, there is no further supervision and no independent witness required at the death to ensure that the lethal dose is self-administered.
Depressed people will be harmed. Under Oregon’s program, Michael Freeland obtained a lethal prescription for his terminal diagnosis, despite a 43-year history of severe depression, suicide attempts and paranoia. The prescribing doctor said a psychological consult was not “necessary.” When Freeland received volunteer suicide prevention services, he was able to reconcile with his estranged daughter and lived two years post-diagnosis. Oregon’s statistics for the last four years show that only 2 percent of participants are being referred for psychological evaluations.
In our era of imposed austerity, the media is full of calls for reducing late-life care in the name of cost containment. Insurers are notorious for delaying treatment, while state programs have cutoffs. So it was that Oregon Medicaid denied prescribed chemotherapies for cancer patients Barbara Wagner and Randy Stroup. Yet the rejection letters gave notice that the minimal cost of 100 Seconal capsules would be covered.
These real-world outcomes help explain why the leading national disability rights groups oppose assisted suicide. We are progressives at the forefront of a grassroots coalition spanning the political spectrum, joined by medical associations, palliative care experts, hospice workers and faith-based organizations.
Many progressives oppose assisted suicide because of the real-world harm it inflicts on innocent people, including those with a terminal diagnosis.
For example, one out of six people admitted to hospice with a six-month prognosis outlives the doctor’s prediction (a common experience in the disability community), but nevertheless remain eligible. In fact, Oregon data shows that every year people who turned out not to be terminal received lethal prescriptions.
Many people do not realize that palliative care has advanced tremendously in the last 20 years, that it is inexcusable for anyone to die in uncontrolled pain. As leading expert Ira Byock testified against assisted suicide:
If I thought lethal prescriptions were necessary to alleviate suffering, I would support them. In 34 years of practice, I have never abandoned a patient to die in uncontrolled pain and have never needed to hasten a patient’s death. Alleviating suffering is different from eliminating the sufferer.
Finally, people should be aware that the group benefiting from Maynard’s campaign is Compassion & Choices, the oft-rebranded Hemlock Society.
At a recent Connecticut forum, C & C president Barbara Coombs Lee indicated a broader long-term agenda. “Coombs Lee also said the legislation would exclude people with dementia and cognitive declines, since they could not make the choice for themselves. ‘It is an issue for another day but is no less compelling,'” she said.
Death for people unable to choose is “no less compelling?” What starts today with Brittany Maynard’s choice ends with the euthanasia of grandma — “she’ll be better off” — with Alzheimer’s.
The Assembly must resist the pressure to build public policy on the sensational story of one person. Assisted suicide laws are just too dangerous.