Josue Rodriguez of Tennessee NDY Opposing SB 1362/HB 1040 – Oral Testimony

My name is Josue Rodriguez, and I am with the Memphis Center for Independent Living. I am testifying on behalf of Not Dead Yet, the national disability rights group that opposes euthanasia and assisted suicide. Our opposition is based on our commitment to social justice for everyone, disabled or not.


SB 1362 is like all assisted suicide laws. It uses bad science to make dangerous public health policy. The bill would establish a government recommendation that doctor-prescribed suicide is sometimes the best medical treatment. Innocent people who are not terminal will lose their lives. People who are not making a voluntary and informed choice will die under SB 1362.


Everyone knows that doctors make mistakes. For example, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy was diagnosed with aggressive brain cancer in 2008, the same kind of cancer that Brittany Maynard had. His widow Victoria described his story in a powerful op-ed, writing:


When my husband was first diagnosed with cancer, he was told that he had only two to four months to live, that he’d never go back to the U.S. Senate, that he should get his affairs in order, kiss his wife, love his family and get ready to die. But that prognosis was wrong. Teddy lived 15 more productive months.


Under this bill, someone in Tennessee with the same diagnosis could be dead in days, because they innocently believed they were dying.


In a 2011 letter to the Boston Globe, Oregonian Jeanette Hall wrote that she voted for “death with dignity” in her state. When she received a terminal diagnosis, she asked her doctor for a lethal prescription. “I didn’t want to suffer,” she wrote. Fortunately, she had a doctor who persuaded her to try more treatment. Now, more than 14 years later, she wrote that she is “so happy to be alive.”


In today’s age of cost-cutting, the media is full of calls to slash healthcare costs. In Oregon, Barbara Wagner and Randy Stroup received letters from Medicaid denying them prescribed chemotherapy. But the letters said that the state would cover the $100 cost of suicide. Assisted suicide will always be the cheapest treatment. Can we trust insurance companies to do the cheap thing or the right thing?


The second this bill passes, depressed people will be put in danger. For example, Oregonian Michael Freeland easily got a lethal prescription for his terminal diagnosis. He had a 43-year history of severe depression, suicide attempts, and paranoia. Fortunately, other doctors and counselors intervened to address his real needs and he died a natural death about two years later. When this story became public, the prescribing doctor said he didn’t think a psychological consultation was “necessary.” Doctors simply aren’t trained to accurately diagnose psychological problems.


If one doctor refuses to write a prescription, families can go “doctor shopping.” When a consulting psychologist found that Kate Cheney lacked the “level of capacity” to make a decision, and that Kate’s daughter was pushing harder for suicide than she was, the angry daughter got the insurance company to fund a second opinion. The second psychologist had the same concerns, but ruled that Kate was competent anyway. On the day that she got back from a nursing home stay as respite for her family, Kate offered to take the lethal overdose. Her family helped her die that same day. Having to choose between a nursing home and a family who sees you as a burden is not a true choice.


There is nothing in this or any other assisted suicide bill that can protect people like Kate Cheney. Every year in Tennessee, it is estimated that out of 1.1 million people over age 60, there are more than 127,000 reported and unreported cases of abuse. For every reported case, there are many more that go unreported


“Only four percent of reported elder abuse cases come from the elder person; 96 percent of the reports come from somewhere else,” Maryland family violence prosecutor Debbie Feinstein said. Only in the fantasy world of proponents are all families, including the thousands of criminally abusive ones, happily gathered around the peaceful and willing suicide.


What ever else assisted suicide is, it is not about pain.


Pain is a medical problem that palliative care can solve.  As renowned palliative care expert Dr. Ira Byock testified,


If I thought lethal prescriptions were necessary to alleviate suffering, I would support them. In 34 years of practice, I have never abandoned a patient to die in uncontrolled pain and have never needed to hasten a patient’s death. Alleviating suffering is different from eliminating the sufferer. Allowing a person to die gently is importantly different from actively ending the person’s life.


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.


These reasons suggest a meaning of dignity that is fragile and easily lost through disability and dependence on others. Proponents admit that the people acting on these views tend to be wealthier, better educated, and people with a strong preference for control. This is presented as a good thing.


Assisted suicide proponents are also overwhelmingly white. 97.1% of program suicides in Oregon have been white, in a state 22% nonwhite. As a Latino, I notice that Latino and black participants in the Oregon program are less than 1% of the total, while Latinos and Blacks make up 14% of the state’s population. In Tennessee, Latinos and Blacks make up 22% of the state’s population. In a national poll in 2013, the Pew Research Center found that whites support assisted suicide 53%-44%. But it also found that almost 65% of both blacks and Latinos oppose it. My community opposes assisted suicide by 2 to 1.


We do have a public health problem, it’s the the high suicide rate among white people. If legalized assisted suicide benefits everyone, we should see equal participation across race and class. But we don’t. Please do not pass a law based on one social group’s belief that dignity is something that you can lose, and that sometimes it’s better to be dead than disabled.


Reject this bill.


Thank you very much.

Josue Rodriguez