Provide People With Disabilities Supports To Live, Not Tools To Die

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By Anita Cameron

The New York state Legislature is expected to review A4321 and S6471, the latest in a succession of fundamentally flawed (and, to date, all defeated) assisted suicide bills this spring. This activity comes at a time when the culture hasn’t yet recognized most disabled people would prefer the means, resources and supports that make it easier for us to live — because of commonly accepted biases, prejudices and policies that, intentional or not, make it increasingly difficult for disabled people to do so.

The first warning sign: Assisted suicide has been used to cut costs everywhere it is legalized. In states where the controversial practice has become legal, like Oregon, there have been several documented instances where profit-motivated insurers have denied people access to life extending treatment while blithely offering to provide a lethal prescription instead. Only weeks after California passed its assisted suicide law, Stephanie Packer, a mother of four and a cancer patient, was denied her previously approved chemotherapy treatment, and told cheaper suicide pills were available instead. If assisted suicide is normalized, insurers and even patients may see it as an economic benefit.

The second warning sign: Disabled people, including seniors, experience abuse at the hands of family members and caregivers every day at rates significantly higher than the general population. An estimated one in 10 seniors already experiences elder abuse. One in two disabled women will be sexually abused. Why is this relevant to assisted suicide? Because assisted suicide makes it easier for heirs, family members and dubious caregivers to pressure a person with a disability to end their life, with no questions asked. And, worse yet, no consequences.

The third warning sign: Assisted suicide targets and devalues disability communities without ever mentioning us explicitly — essentially erasing those most at risk. It does so with the deadly combination of overly broad definitions and weak, unenforceable safeguards. In a 2019 report, the National Council on Disability, an independent nonpartisan federal agency that advises the president, Congress and other federal agencies on public policy decisions, detailed the extensive dangers of assisted suicide laws to disability communities and reported that “safeguards” in assisted suicide laws are “ineffective, and often fail to protect patients.”

The fourth warning sign: If proposed assisted suicide bills are signed into law, New York state legislators would, in effect, embrace a new category: legally protected abuse. If it ever becomes law, assisted suicide legislation intentionally puts lethal drugs into the hands of those who could easily misuse them and makes it easier to do so. Like child abuse, spousal abuse and hate crimes, elder abuse occurs when a class of people does not get equal protection, equal treatment and social supports to prevent harm. If New York passes assisted suicide legislation, it will unwittingly create a class of people who receive lethal medication and suicide instructions instead of suicide prevention interventions and social support to prevent harm.

The current bill, which like its predecessors, is based on Oregon’s flawed assisted suicide law, does not require attending clinicians to talk to the patient at least once without family present in assisted suicide cases. Further, New York’s bill does not and would not explicitly require documentation that such conversations even occurred. Both the Medical Society of the State of New York and the American Medical Association have historically opposed assisted suicide for this reason and others.

While rarely acknowledged by proponents, this much is certain — wherever assisted suicide is legal, it is inevitable that some people’s lives will be ended without their consent due to implicit bias, mistakes or coercion. No safeguards, existing or proposed, are adequate enough to prevent these abuses, and the lack of oversight only increases the danger to already at-risk individuals. As assisted suicide spreads and is normalized, the numbers of those at risk will grow to include other marginalized communities, such as people of color, due to racial disparities in healthcare, and poor people, who likely would have limited or no access to healthcare.

Caution was warranted when New York state first rejected assisted suicide in 1828, and is arguably more essential now due to increased risks no one could have imagined two centuries ago. Now, as was true then, New York’s policy priorities should be improving and expanding healthcare services that people with disabilities and all marginalized communities rely on to live, instead of normalizing assisted suicide and increasing already substantial perils to disabled, chronically ill, and older New Yorkers by lazily transforming documented dangerous practices into literally lethal laws.

Anita Cameron, of Rochester, is director of minority outreach for Not Dead Yet, a national disability group headquartered in Rochester that opposes assisted suicide laws.

Source: “Provide people with disabilities supports to live, not tools to die,”

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