Second Thoughts - Disability Rights Advocates Against Assisted Suicide

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: This bill is for people who are terminally ill and about to die. Why are disabled people worried about it?

Answer: Although on the surface the bill looks like it's supposed to apply only to people with six months or less to live, experience with similar laws shows that, in practice, this is not what happens. It is very difficult to predict how long someone will live, and doctors sometimes make mistakes in diagnosing people; we all know someone who has "beat the odds" and lived much longer than doctors expected they would. In fact, reports from Oregon Public Health on that state's “death with dignity” law show that during every year since the program began, people have outlived the six-month cut-off.

In addition, the wording of the Massachusetts bill is unclear, and could be interpreted to include people with long-term illnesses (such as diabetes) or disabilities whose lives depend on daily medications like insulin or other essential treatments. Finally, in every jurisdiction where assisted suicide is legal, standards for who is included have grown more and more relaxed. For example, in the Netherlands, people who are old or simply "sick of life" can have a mobile euthanasia unit come to their house.

Question: I don't want to be kept alive on machines. Why can't I have the right to end my life?

Answer: This right already exists. Under current law, any competent person has the right to stop or refuse treatment, including food and water, even if they know that will lead to death. People can sign advance directives to tell medical personnel of their wishes should they become unable to communicate, and they can appoint a health care proxy to make medical decisions if they can’t do so.

Question: Aren't there protections for disabled people already in the bill?

Answer: The safeguards that are written into the Massachusetts bill are not strong enough to prevent abuses by family members, heirs or others. And in general, attempts to build safeguards into other similar laws have failed.

The people who are most vulnerable under these laws -- elders and people with disabilities -- suffer much higher rates of abuse than the general public. This law would make it possible for family or friends (including heirs) to pressure, trick or even force someone to accept assisted suicide. Interested parties can help make the assisted suicide request, witness the signature of the form, pick up the prescription and administer the lethal dose.

Question: Won't this bill help people in serious pain to end their suffering?

Answer: Suicide is not pain relief. Palliative care – the medical science of relieving pain – has advanced a great deal, and most pain can be controlled with proper treatment. In extreme cases, palliative sedation – putting someone in an unconscious or semi-conscious state to relieve pain – can ease suffering until the moment of death.

However records from Oregon show that few people who have sought "death with dignity" under that state's program have ranked pain as a primary reason for their request. Most people cited concern over isolation, and loss of function and autonomy as the chief reasons for wanting to die.

In fact, where assisted suicide is legal, palliative care is not as widely available or as well developed as it is in other jurisdictions.

Question: Shouldn't assisted suicide be a matter of individual choice?

Answer: Society has already determined that preventing suicide is a public health priority. Programs of awareness and intervention receive public funds, and the public is encouraged to help troubled individuals to avoid suicide. Yet when people with disabilities or terminal illness express a desire to end their lives, these feelings are seen as rational, and they are encouraged by laws like the one being proposed in Massachusetts.

Some people say that people with disabilities need help to kill themselves because they lack the means to do so. This is not true. Even the most severely disabled person can refuse medical treatment, food and water.

In reality, many people who attempt suicide are actually looking for help to improve their quality of life. This is born out by the fact that only 17% of suicide attempts are successful. People seek to control their death, because public policies make it difficult to control their life. They want a loving family to gather around them as they die, because they do not have loved ones to support and help them live.

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