By Meghan Parker
Proponents of New York’s physician-assisted suicide bill seem perplexed by the strong opposition from disability activists.
But doesn’t the bill only apply to adults who are expected to die within six months so they can control when they die? Isn’t that a basic right that we should all have?
As someone who is blind with a chronic condition, and who has spent years fighting for the rights of people with a range of disabilities, let me explain.
Under assisted-suicide laws, doctors play two critical roles. First, they determine if a person is indeed terminal. Then, they prescribe a drug combination that will cause death.
I am deeply concerned that the fate of thousands of people who struggle with serious health challenges will hinge on medical professionals’ subjective perceptions and the guidance they give. My experience tells me that as a result, we will see patients with the same diagnosis or functional levels who are more or less likely to die based on factors that shouldn’t matter.
Assisted suicide is typically depicted by proponents as a choice for patients who have tried everything. But the legislation doesn’t ensure that assisted suicide is truly a last resort. And proponents ignore the fact that having access to “everything” is a luxury of the few.
No one knows this better than disabled people. Complications from chronic conditions can turn deadly when the appropriate treatment or equipment cannot be promptly obtained. Survival rates for cystic fibrosis vary depending on the type of insurance a person has.
Before we even consider legalizing assisted suicide, we must address healthcare inequities that cause people who want to live with proper care to needlessly become “terminal.” Otherwise, we are effectively relegating people with fewer options to premature death.
More fundamentally, assisted suicide is based on the assumption that life is so burdensome for some individuals that it is reasonable for them to want to die early. To me, this sounds dangerously close to the “better dead than disabled” attitude that people with disabilities have long struggled against.
As Dr. Ira Byock, a specialist in palliative care and a progressive Democrat, has aptly observed, “when doctor-induced death becomes an accepted response to the suffering of dying people, logical extensions grease the slippery slope.”
Proponents insist any law will come with safeguards, but nothing can prevent an errant prognosis or keep a vulnerable person from being subtly coerced. Official reports state that about half the people who have died by assisted suicide in Oregon felt like a burden on others.
Terms like “terminal illness” that seem well-defined are open to varying interpretations. Is a person with muscular dystrophy who may not survive if he gets pneumonia again considered terminal? Indeed, there are many disabling conditions like Parkinson’s disease that may shorten life.
The requirement that two doctors must agree that, in their reasonable medical judgment, a patient will die within six months or less does not mean that their predictions are right. In fact, the data show that some people don’t take their lethal drugs and far outlive their prognosis.
One provision of the bill touted as specifically protecting disabled folks and the elderly may actually do the opposite. This is the prohibition against a person qualifying for aid in dying “solely because of age or disability.” The word “solely” implies that age or disability can be among several factors to be taken into consideration in determining if a patient can be given a lethal prescription. And the reported reasons people have requested assisted suicide in Oregon — loss of autonomy, less able to engage in activities, etc. — indicate that virtually all who die by lethal prescription have been disabled in some way.
Many disability-rights activists oppose passage of New York’s assisted suicide bill because it would put people like us at risk. But our focus is broader than that. We aim for a fair and compassionate community where everyone can get the medical care they need and want, and everyone has enough social support and affirmation that they can live without feeling a duty to die.
Parker is the director of advocacy for the New York Association on Independent Living.