Second Thoughts - Disability Rights Advocates Against Assisted Suicide

Blog > Same old, same old

Submitted by Amy Hasbrouck

Discussions of assisted suicide at forums all begin to sound alike after a while

Up front there is a panel of experts. At least one is a religious and/or politically conservative person, another is a doctor or other medical professional, and a third is a supporter of assisted suicide (often a lawyer, university professor, or another doctor). Rarely are disability rights activists asked to be on the panel, and if they are, they're far outnumbered.

Early in the discussion assisted suicide supporters use words like "unbearable suffering," "pain," "undignified" "trapped," "rights," "control," etc. If a disability rights advocate has the opportunity, chances are she or he will mention that only a very small percentage of people request assisted suicide because of pain, and that palliative care is extremely effective at easing the discomfort of dying. The response that comes back is that there are "other kinds" of suffering, such as as loss of physical function, or needing assistance with activities of daily living, which is described as "undignified."

(At that moment, I like to weigh the relative dignity of Stephen Hawking's personal care versus a bunch of childish people throwing tantrums on some reality TV show.)

Such comments make it seem like they're talking about assisted suicide for people with disabilities. If a disability activist gets a chance to point out that it's discriminatory to help disabled people die instead of trying to prevent their suicides, they say "No, no! We're only talking about people with terminal illness."

On the other side, the religious panelist will use words like "moral" "obligation" "care" "vulnerable" and sometimes even "unfortunate." When a disability rights advocate points out that words like "vulnerable" and ""unfortunate" tend to lower the status of people with disabilities, they'll say "Oh, we didn't mean it that way."

Because the same old experts will always make the same old points, such forums should feature people with disabilities on the panel.

We could talk about how public policy makes it difficult to live fulfilling lives in the community, and how hard it is to find mental health professionals who don't share the view that disability is a fate worse than death. We could talk about the lessons we've learned from our experience with the medical community; that doctors make mistakes, that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and that each person knows best what works for him or her. In short, we could bring a different point of view, to re-shape the conversation.

Almost everybody with a terminal illness will have a disability, though not everyone with a disability has a terminal illness. But all people with disabilities are endangered by assisted suicide laws. For us it is as real as our next medical test, urinary tract infection or persistent cold. We must speak up about assisted suicide, and the rest of the world must listen.

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