Second Thoughts - Disability Rights Advocates Against Assisted Suicide

Blog > Disability rights and ballot questions
Fenway News Question 2, October 2012
John B. Kelly

One of the joys of the Fenway is its diversity and vibrant community spirit. We Fenwickians take on issues with gusto, from development and institutional expansion to streetscape access,my own project over the last 10 years. Our little Fenway-based Neighborhood Access Group(NAG) has been welcomed and supported.

Now comes a pair of state ballot questions that touch directly on our experience as people with disabilities. Question 3, medical marijuana, would provide access to proven treatments for our various and unique ailments, from muscle spasticity and pain to anxiety and insomnia. Medical marijuana will will make good social policy, and I hope to qualify for the program.

Question 2, for the legalization of assisted suicide, sounds equally good at first, what with its promise of autonomy and dignity. Yet a closer look at this bill shows plenty of danger. We draw the name of our group, "Second Thoughts," from our finding that the more people learn about this bill, the more they oppose it. This measure will make for a disastrous social policy, in which death itself becomes a medical treatment.

The so-called "Death with Dignity" Act is modeled on laws in the two states where assisted suicide is legal, Oregon and Washington. The measure would authorize doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of barbiturates for people diagnosed as "terminally ill," defined as having less than six months to live. But terminal diagnoses are famously inaccurate: people outlive their terminal diagnoses by years or even decades. Second Thoughts member John Norton says he would have used assisted suicide if it were available at his terminal diagnosis 55 years ago, and now works to save vulnerable people from the fate he was spared.

In this age of induced austerity, we are bombarded with stories of the expense of people's last year of medical care, while local hospitals lose money and try to re-organize. In Oregon,Barbara Wagner and Randy Stroup received letters from Oregon Medicaid denying coverage for prescribed chemotherapy; the letters noted, however, that the state would cover the $100
cost of assisted suicide. Because assisted suicide will always be the cheapest treatment,its availability will inevitably affect medical decision-making. This will actually end up constraining choice.

The "safeguards" in the measure are empty and go unenforced. When doctors in Oregon decline to prescribe lethal dosages, people simply "doctor shop" for that one "yes." One of the two required witnesses at a request may be an heir. No witness is required at the time of death, so there is no way to know whether suicides are voluntary. No reports are gathered from doctors
who refuse to prescribe, families are not interviewed, and abuses are not investigated. So when Wendy Melcher and others were illegally overdosed by nurses, authorities were not notified. The state nursing board placed Melcher's killers on nursing probation.

Over the last 14 years, less than 7% of suicide requesters have been referred for psychiatric consultation, and last year, only 1 out of 71 was referred. So Michael Freeland, who had a 43 year history of depression and suicide attempts, easily got a lethal prescription, and it was only because he mistakenly called an opposition group that he was spared suicide.

Finally, that word "dignity" in the act title signals that assisted suicide is much more than a cure for pain and suffering, but a cure for a lives perceived as not worth living. Prescribing doctors in Oregon report that people are most concerned about social issues, such as limitations on
activities, incontinence, feeling like a burden, and perceived loss of dignity.

We disabled people, whose lives frequently look like the lives of people requesting suicide,do not feel that our dignity is compromised because we depend on others for physical care, or because we are not continent every hour of every day. We know that when social supports such as home care and PCAs are made available, family burden can be relieved. Let's make sure that people have the support to live comfortably at home before offering hastened death. Please think about other people, vulnerable and not in control, who will be impacted by this piece of bad social policy. Vote no on Question 2.

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