Second Thoughts - Disability Rights Advocates Against Assisted Suicide

Blog > Not from the Birmingham Jail

I am not sitting in the Birmingham Jail, or any jail for that matter. Though I do have occasion to write letters that sum up my opinion on certain aspects of the disability-rights position on assisted suicide, I have no illusions about the quality of these letters. Nor would I ever compare my hen-scratchings to the eloquent and inspiring letters of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I merely set this missive adrift as an artifact of this campaign against question 2 on the 2012 ballot in Massachusetts; 1s and 0s that will survive only briefly before they are crowded off the information superhighway into a sodden overgrown ditch full of useless html code, grainy fifth-generation cat videos and broken links.

Here is a segment of an email I just sent.

"...The "legal competency" criteria are not the same as what a clinician would look for when evaluating someone for treatment of suicidality. So is it even appropriate to evaluate someone for competency when the person needs suicide intervention?

"A central pillar of the disability rights argument against assisted suicide is that people who present with suicidal feelings receive different responses from the (mental) health system depending on whether or not they have a disability or terminal illness. When a non-disabled person comes in with suicidal feelings, those emotions will be considered pathological, and the person will be directed toward suicide prevention, social and psychological supports, medication, even put in a hospital to prevent the suicide. When someone with a disability says they want to die, their wish is seen as "rational" and "understandable" because they have a disability. This comes from the bias most clinicians share with the general public, fear of disability, and of becoming disabled.

"So not only are the suicidal feelings considered rational and appropriate, assisted suicide laws would guarantee that, whereas most suicide attempts fail, nearly all the suicides of disabled people would succeed.

"The point you make about physiological causes of depression for elders and people with disabilities arising from compromised health is great. But it's only part of it picture, I believe. I think it's crucial to add a) the role of depression in the grieving process that people go through upon acquiring a disability or terminal diagnosis; b) the long-term effects of discrimination and oppression; c) the adjustment to changed relationships and loss of physical capacity, future ambitions and status; and d) the isolation that can result from limited access to employment, transportation, and civic life.

"The expertise that those of us with disabilities bring to the assisted suicide discussion is our personal knowledge of the effects of disability discrimination. Simply by speaking out, we demonstrate that we are whole people who are not "better off dead" and merit equal access to suicide prevention services. The policy arguments developed over the past 25 years by Diane Coleman, Stephen Drake, Carol Gill, Paul Longmore, and others are very important, but they're the gravy. All that to say you already have all the expertise you need to speak on the most important aspects of the subject.

"As Not Dead Yet has discovered in its work with legislatures around the country, this is not an issue that fits well into sound bites. Educating a limited number of lawmakers, who are all in the same building is one thing; educating the entire population of a state is quite another. And getting to folks with disabilities is even more complex. So let me know what kind of time and energy you have to put into the campaign, and we'll figure out the best way to use your talents."

Amy Hasbrouck

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