A few weeks ago, I went to Albany, the New York state capital, to meet with members of the Senate Minority Caucus to urge them not to support any forthcoming assisted suicide legislation.
During the meetings, each legislator and/or staffer was asked had he or she heard stances against assisted suicide from the perspective of disabled people. With one exception, no one said they had heard why many in our community are against it.
As I spoke with other folks with disabilities around the country, the same theme arose — they were speaking out against assisted suicide and they weren’t really being heard.
It is an uphill battle because those of us directly affected by such legislation are either being dismissed by Compassion and Choices or our voices are being drowned out by other powerful groups whose reasons for opposition to assisted suicide differ from ours.
I find it disturbing, to say the least, that the disability perspective has not been sought out, since our community will suffer the effects, unintended or not, of assisted suicide laws. This doesn’t come as any surprise when our lives are devalued by doctors and society in general. Why bother with the ramifications for us when, to most, being disabled is considered a fate worse than death?
So, what does the disability community think about assisted suicide? While our community isn’t monolithic, the vast majority of us, including all of the major disability organizations that have taken a position, feel that the legalization of assisted suicide is dangerous. It is inherently discriminatory, it opens the way for insurance companies to choose assisted suicide as an option because it is cheaper than paying for life-saving drugs and treatments, it allows doctors to be gatekeepers to decide whose lives are worthy, and makes it possible for unscrupulous and abusive family members and heirs to coerce their relative into choosing assisted suicide even if it isn’t what they want.
Proponents of assisted suicide such as Compassion and Choices pooh-pooh the disability perspective, saying that our community won’t be affected because this is for people with six months or less to live, who are in excruciating pain. The fact is, doctors can, and do, make mistakes about how long someone has to live. Also, while they and others talk about pain as the main reason that people want assisted suicide, the truth is that people seeking the suicide drugs in Oregon cited loss of autonomy, feelings of being a burden, loss of the ability to engage in activities, loss of the ability to control bodily functions and loss of dignity as the top reasons for wanting to die. All of these are issues that many of us disabled face every day and live meaningful lives despite this.
In this desperate fight against assisted suicide, it is vitally important that people, especially lawmakers, speak with disability organizations such as Not Dead Yet, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF), ADAPT, National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) and Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) before supporting, sponsoring or co-sponsoring assisted suicide legislation. While other opponents may have moral or philosophical reasons for opposing this deadly trend, disabled people live with the cold, hard reality of what has happened, and what can happen, to us. We can give you actual facts of how our lives are affected, rather than philosophical musings or moral admonitions.
Reach out to us for our perspective and don’t dismiss us when we tell you the real truth about what assisted suicide legislation will do to disabled people. Listen to us because this is literally a matter of life and death!