Why I’m Not Buying Death with “Dignity”

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Leah Smith

Why I’m Not Buying Death with “Dignity”

This blog is in response to the March 18th New York Times Op Ed by Barbara Coombs Lee, “A Pioneer for Death With Dignity”.

I cannot join this bandwagon.

When I first saw Brittany Maynard’s viral video, I have to say I found it somewhat compelling. However, after digging a little deeper, I realized that she must be the exception to such legislation and not the rule. Brittany Maynard was a white, upper-middle class citizen that had full access to both basic health care and specialists. In addition, she had the resources to not only move out of state to qualify for physician-assisted suicide, but to also travel the world before ending her life. I can say with absolute positivity that this is surely not a typical case. Another thing I know for sure is: when looking critically at any policy, we need to be sure to include how it would work for people who do not enjoy Maynard’s level of wealth and privilege. Those truly at risk from such legislation are the ones that do not have this kind of support at home or from the health care system. Without either of which, someone with Maynard’s health condition would have had no choice to die because they did not have the resources to live. In other words, for people without Maynard’s resources, Physician Assisted Suicide is maybe their only choice. Checking off dream vacations from your bucket list is hardly a reality when you make minimum wage, the medical bills are piling up and the rent needs to be paid.

However, more troubling than the fact that Brittany Maynard is the newest face and voice for this movement, are the assumptions behind the pro-physician assisted suicide perspective. Taking this article by Barbara Coombs Lee as representative, it is clear how supporters of Physician Assisted Suicide have built their case on ableism. For example, Coombs Lee reveals her ableist attitude towards people with disabilities in her article for the New York Times by describing Senator Frank Roberts, who introduced the original bill in Oregon, in the following terms: “By January 1991 Frank’s prostate cancer had become both advanced and crippling. Radiation treatments had injured his spinal cord, and he could neither stand nor walk. Yet he still cut a commanding and charismatic figure as he zipped through the Capitol on an electric scooter.”

This description of Senator Roberts relies on the assumption that the author could barely imagine how a person could remain a “commanding and charismatic” figure while using an electric scooter. Pardon me while my blood begins to boil, but clearly she is arguing that Senator Roberts is the exception to the rule that if one uses an assistive mobility device they cannot be commanding or charismatic.

Coombs Lee continues her ableist arguments in her description of the Brittany Maynard case with, “as her pain and seizures escalated and as inevitable paralysis, blindness and stupor approached, she drank medication obtained under Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act and died quietly in a circle of her loved ones last fall.”

While I cannot speak for any pain that Brittany was experiencing, I do know that pain can be managed with adequate palliative care. However, if this variable were to be removed that would leave us with the justification of this decision resting on seizures, paralysis, and blindness, all of which many disabled people across the country live with on a daily basis. None of which are grounds in my mind to not be living a good and fulfilling life. You might have noticed that I did fail to include in this list the “stupor” that was aforementioned. While I would never use this word to describe anyone who has not been drinking, I will assume that the author was using this derogatory term to describe a person with dementia or other cognitive disability. Again, ableist in nature and not accurately describing their experience, many people live with such disabilities their entire lives, finding fulfillment and never once questioning their desire to live. The most troubling aspect of all of this, is this underlying notion that disabled people should question their desire to live.

Further, the mere fact that it is called “Death With Dignity” implies that living with the conditions that Coombs Lee has described in such frightening terms is inherently undignified.  This language explicitly exhibits a bias against people that have seizures, use assistive devices, have cognitive disabilities, are blind or have paralysis as not having dignity. I have to wonder what she means by ‘dignified’, other than nondisabled.

While I understand that death is a very complex and sticky topic, I personally will not be able to even understand the pro physician assisted suicide movement’s position until they are able to speak to my experience- that disability is not scary and does not inhibit anyone that wants to from living a full and productive life.

However, regressive social attitudes, such as the one expressed by Coombs Lee, do create barriers to disabled people living good lives.

Leah Smith is a writer, communications professional and disability advocate. Leah holds a Bachelor’s in Public Relations and a Masters in Public Administration and Policy. She has focused her career on creating access and equality for all. Leah currently resides in Philadelphia with her partner and two dogs.