John Kelly: Not Dead Yet and Second Thoughts make strong showing at Rhode Island hearing

Chair gives “Not Dead Yet” an “A” for best name of the evening

Disability rights advocates from Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts testified on March 24 before the House Health Education and Welfare Committee that it should have “second thoughts” about assisted suicide bill HB 7659. We pitted the harsh realities of assisted suicide laws against the falsehood-packed PR strategy of Compassion & Choices (C & C).

Rhode Island autistic advocate Emily Titon spoke on behalf of Not Dead Yet, Stephen Mendelsohn testified on behalf of Second Thoughts Connecticut, while John Kelly presented on behalf of both Not Dead Yet and Second Thoughts Massachusetts.  The hearing video is available online and these testimonies begin approximately at minute markers 35 and 49.  Written testimony was submitted by Not Dead Yet president and CEO Diane Coleman and Cathy Ludlum of Second Thoughts Connecticut.

At the start of the hearing, Chair Joseph McNamara announced the bill would be sent to study, which he said would keep the bill alive with the possibility of being amended. The reality is that the bill is almost certainly dead, although it could technically be brought forward at any time.

Emily testified that the bill would immediately endanger people experiencing depression, citing the example of Oregonian Michael Freeland, who despite a 43 year history of suicide attempts and depression, easily got a prescription for the lethal drugs.

Against the C & C strategy of presenting personal stories of pain and agony, Emily testified that “What ever else assisted suicide is, it is not about pain. Pain is a medical problem that palliative care can solve.”

The kind of suffering this bill talks about is social and psychological. Doctors report people choosing suicide because of loss of dignity, loss of autonomy, feeling like a burden, and loss of control of bodily functions.

Emily cited the realities of elder abuse, which affects over 20,000 Rhode Islanders over the age of 60. “Only in the fantasy world of the proponents are all families, including the thousands of abusive and dysfunctional ones, happily gathered around the peaceful and willing suicide.”

Stephen Mendelsohn told the committee that “we have crushed these bills in at least nine states this year and the past three years in Connecticut without a single committee vote. “

Stephen said that Connecticut is the first state to recognize explicitly that “assisted suicide is actually a form of lethal discrimination against disabled people.” He read a key finding of the Connecticut Suicide Advisory Board (CTSAB):

Until recently, the CTSAB was considering assisted suicide of the terminally ill as a separate issue from suicide prevention. The active disability community in Connecticut, however, has been vocal on the need for suicide prevention services for people with disabilities. There may be unintended consequences of assisted suicide legislation on people with disabilities. [Disabled scholar William] Peace writes that “Many assume that disability is a fate worse than death. So we admire people with a disability who want to die, and we shake our collective heads in confusion when they want to live.”

Thanks to Second Thoughts Connecticut, one of the Board’s most important recommendations was:

  • Do not “assume” suicide is a “rational” response to disability.

This simple recommendation collapses the house of assisted suicide cards so carefully constructed by the PR machine at Compassion & Choices. C & C has figured that if they terrify enough people of dying in agonizing pain, they may be able to pass the program they wanted all along. And once they establish the goodness of the treatment known as “aid in dying,” they can go about expanding eligibility, step by incremental step. As Not Dead Yet research analyst Stephen Drake has said, once something is defined as a benefit, it can only be extended.

Stephen Mendelsohn catalogs the recent efforts:

Leaders of Compassion & Choices and other “right-to-die” organizations have publicly stated their intent to come back later to expand beyond “six months,” “terminally ill,” and “mentally competent.” At a gathering in Hartford, Connecticut in October 2014, Compassion & Choices president Barbara Coombs Lee declared her support for assisted suicide for people with dementia and cognitive disabilities unable to consent.  CT News Junkie quoted her saying, “It is an issue for another day but is no less compelling.”  Dr. Marcia Angell, leading proponent of the defeated 2012 Massachusetts’ assisted suicide ballot question, wrote in The New York Review of Books that she now favors euthanasia as well as assisted suicide. Last year, Oregon debated legislation (HB 3337) with six co-sponsors that would have extended eligibility for assisted suicide from a six month prognosis to one year.

My testimony started with the fundamental, irrefutable truth of assisted suicide. “This bill is so dangerous because it will cause innocent people, through mistakes and abuse, to lose their lives because doctors are so often wrong about diagnosis and there are so many Rhode Island elders that are abused.” I ridiculed C & C’s promotion of assisted suicide as providing “choice.”

We cannot speak meaningfully about choice when thousands of people graduate from hospice every year. They outlive their six-month diagnosis and what for them is the best possible outcome – graduating from hospice – under this bill, becomes the worst sort of tragedy, in that people will lose their lives when they had months, years, or decades to live.

It seems that everyone knows someone who has been diagnosed terminal and lived longer. Does anyone in this room really think that doctors are infallible?

I said that there could be no choice when one out of every 10 Rhode Island elders are estimated to be abused, when there is no guaranteed funded homecare, so a family has to weigh the inheritance versus care of a family member, and not when the leading reasons cited in Oregon all have to do with disability.

Chair McNamara then started a line of inquiry about our name “Not Dead Yet,”

“Your organization, Not Dead Yet, interesting name.” He was enjoying himself.

“It’s from Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” I called out.

“I love it!,” he roared. “That’s great. That’s great.”

“Bring out your dead.” “But I’m not dead yet.” (I repeated the key lines from the movie scene, in which a man pushes a wheelbarrow through a medieval town during the Black Death, calling “Bring out your dead. Bring out your dead.”)

“Beautiful. Very creative.” McNamara was beaming. “You get an A for the best name of the evening, so far.”

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