Advocates from the Center for Disability Rights joined with advocates from other organizations in a press conference on Tuesday, expressing our opposition to the legalization of assisted suicide. Below are my remarks. –Adam Prizio, Manager of Government Affairs
On March 1, 2016, the Disability Community again observed its National Day of Mourning. We remembered the names and lives of over one hundred and eighty disabled people who have been killed by their parents or loved ones in the past five years. When the story of one of these deaths makes the news, it is often of a murderer driven by the victim’s disability to take the victim’s life. Often, the crime goes un-prosecuted. The murderer, you see, has suffered enough. It is the pinnacle of victim-blaming.
People with disabilities, and older adults, are significantly more likely than the general population to be abused or harmed by their families or caregivers. Disabled women are at least twice as likely as non-disabled women to experience domestic abuse or sexual assault. One in ten seniors will experience elder abuse, often at the hands of a family member, caregiver, or trusted friend.
What does this have to do with assisted suicide? This has everything to do with assisted suicide, because assisted suicide is proposed for people with a terminal illness. Not every person with a disability is terminally ill, but every person with a terminal illness has, or expects shortly to have, a disability. In the bills under consideration in New York, the definition of terminal illness is irrespective of treatment. Without treatment, diabetes is terminal. Kidney infection is terminal. This means that assisted suicide is being offered specifically to people with disabilities, under a definition that includes a great many people who, with treatment, will live long and dignified lives. That fact alone should trouble supporters of assisted suicide.
The prevalence of abuse against people with disabilities and seniors must give us further reason to pause. We have to consider more than just how assisted suicide will work for the ideal case which proponents talk about: a person in terrible pain with only a short time to live, who is supported by a loving family, and who is not under financial duress.
Assisted suicide will not only be available for that idealized case; it will also be available for the real and messy and human cases of people whose families are ashamed of their disability. The cases of people whose caregivers are already willing to forge their signatures; people who have had to fight and fight and fight for every support that our for-profit health care system does not want to pay for; who have had to beg their personal attendants to stay with them over a decade of stagnant wages. Assisted suicide will be available for the older adult whose heirs are pressuring them to change the will.
Under these bills, if a doctor can be convinced that a person has six months or less to live – irrespective of treatment, remember – then that person will have access to assisted suicide. Doctors are not infallible, and they are not immune from bias, including bias about the quality of the life that a patient may have. In fact, doctors consistently rate the quality of life of a patient with a disability significantly lower than the patient themselves does. It is dangerously naïve to think that doctors’ beliefs about living with a disability cannot and will not inform their decision to prescribe a lethal dose under the assisted suicide laws.
Proponents of assisted suicide often say that a person may want the lethal prescription in order to feel in control, even if they do not ultimately take the prescription. The problem with this is that once the prescription is in the house of the patient, there is nothing to prevent a person from administering it to the patient without their consent, intravenously or mixed into food. A person may ask for the lethal prescription under pressure from their heirs; they may intend merely to shut the heirs up; they may never intend to take the prescription at all; and they may be killed, without their consent, by “assisted suicide,” and no questions will be asked.
Assisted suicide advocacy comes from a place of great privilege, although proponents may not think it does. It comes from a place where the law only ever works as intended. From a place where families are always safe; where caregivers always have the best interest of the family member at heart; a place where people do not have to fight for their right to live a full and independent life in the community. It comes from a place that can afford to discount the financial reality that assisted suicide will be cheaper than treatment, even cheaper than palliative care.
It comes from a place that falsely believes it is undignified to need help using the toilet, or bathing, or transferring from the bed to the chair, and that the law should ratify this prejudice by allowing doctors to kill people who would rather die than spend any time living with a disability.
In Oregon, only one in four people who uses assisted suicide mentions either their present pain or the fear of future pain. One in four. By contrast, nine in ten mention a loss of autonomy; nearly nine in ten, a loss of ability; nearly eight in ten, a loss of dignity; one in two, a loss of bodily function; and four in ten, the feeling of being a burden. These are the indicia of being disabled in an ableist society. Assisted suicide is not about pain; included in the very idea of death with dignity is the belief that it is better to die than to be disabled.
People with disabilities and older adults do not have the privilege of believing that we are safe simply because we do not consent. We do not have the privilege of the law and the health care system reliably working for us. We do not have the privilege of being safe from the people we rely on to live our lives. We do not always have the privilege of families who have our best interests in mind. We do not have the privilege of ignoring how assisted suicide will affect the Disability Community. We do not have the privilege of living in a society that acknowledges the dignity of disability, rather than bombarding us with the message that it is better to die than to be disabled.
For all of these reasons and more, we oppose the legalization of assisted suicide.