From the larger view, assisted suicide is simply too dangerous

From the larger view, assisted suicide is simply too dangerous

Marianne Turnbull, who is seriously ill with ovarian cancer, testified in September for the legalization of assisted suicide in Minnesota. 

To follow-up on the significant opposition testimony of disabled people, she made a direct appeal to the readership of Access Press, in the October 2019 issue. 

Assisted suicide looks good when considered from a sympathetic individual like Marianne, but looking at the larger picture, it becomes clear that assisted suicide is too dangerous. 

Assisted suicide inevitably takes the lives of non-dying people: 12 to 15 percent of “terminal” people admitted to hospice outlive their six-month prognosis, sometimes by years and decades. Actress Valerie Harper, who died last month, was given mere months to live 6 ½ years ago. 

Doctors make mistakes! 

Assisted suicide proponents like Marianne frame the issue as one of autonomy and personal choice, but in our vastly unequal society, choice is terribly constrained. 

For example, more than half of Oregon program deaths in 2018 were reported by their doctors to “feel like a burden” on family and caregivers. In the absence of funded home care for all, it’s hardly a choice when the alternative to being a burden is either impoverishment and a nursing home, or assisted suicide. 

The other top four reasons reported for Oregon deaths all have to do with negative reactions to disability. It’s clear that people feel grief and shame in the face of loss of autonomy, loss of abilities, loss of “dignity,” and incontinence. 

Adding assisted suicide to our broken, discriminatory health system makes for a deadly mix. As the cheapest “treatment” for serious illness, assisted suicide fattens insurers’ profits and crowds out more expensive treatment. 

In Nevada, Dr. Brian Callister has reported that two of his patients were denied an often curative but costly therapy. Medical directors of the health insurance companies told him that they would only cover hospice and assisted suicide. 

Elder and disability abuse is rampant. It is estimated that 1 in 10 people over the age of 60 are abused every year. Because no disinterested witness is required, heirs and abusers can engineer deaths without worry. 

For these reasons and others, every leading national disability rights organization that has taken a position on assisted suicide has come out against it. The National Council On Disability (NCD), an independent federal agency, just released a comprehensive report, Assisted Suicide Laws and their Danger to People with Disabilities. 

The NCD found that “the lives of people with disabilities are routinely devalued” in medical settings, where “biases can have serious and even deadly consequences.” For example, it found suicide contagion and depressed people getting the drugs in states where assisted suicide is legal. 

Palliative care doctors know how to let people die gently, so it’s inexcusable that anyone die in uncontrolled pain. Everyone has the right to reject any treatment, including food and water, and palliative sedation is available as a last resort. 

The Minnesota Legislature should demand excellent palliative care, not put everyone in danger of premature death due to mistakes, abuse and insurers’ bottom lines. 

John B. Kelly is a longtime disability rights advocate and writer in Boston. He is the New England regional director for Not Dead Yet, and the director of its Massachusetts state affiliate, Second Thoughts MA: Disability Rights Advocates against Assisted Suicide.