By John B Kelly - the New England regional director for Not Dead Yet, a grassroots disability group opposed to the legalization of assisted suicide.
The media is flush with the sympathetic story of Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old newlywed with aggressive brain cancer. Her video advocating expanded assisted suicide laws has been seen millions of times, prompting another push in the State Assembly to pass an assisted suicide bill.
(NB: Brittany Maynard passed away on the 3rd of November 2014)
When the focus is on an individual, assisted suicide can sound good – who’s against compassion or relieving suffering? But a closer look reveals that assisted suicide puts vulnerable people in mortal danger. The more people learn about the real-world implications of these bills, the more they oppose them. (Our group takes its name – Second Thoughts – from this fact). Last year, the Legislatures of New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut rejected assisted suicide bills.
The simple truth is that not all families are loving. Elder abuse is a nationally recognized epidemic. Every year, New Jersey elders suffer an estimated 175,000 cases of reported and unreported abuse, most by adult children and caregivers. Financial gain or emotional relief creates motives for steering someone toward death. The two witnesses to the death request could be an heir and the heir’s accomplice. Once the lethal prescription leaves the pharmacy, there is no further supervision and no independent witness required at the death to ensure that the lethal dose is self-administered.
Depressed people will be harmed. Under Oregon’s program, Michael Freeland obtained a lethal prescription for his terminal diagnosis, despite a 43-year history of severe depression, suicide attempts and paranoia. The prescribing doctor said a psychological consult was not “necessary.” When Freeland received volunteer suicide prevention services, he was able to reconcile with his estranged daughter and lived two years post-diagnosis. Oregon’s statistics for the last four years show that only 2 percent of patients are being referred for psychological evaluations.
In our era of imposed austerity, the media is full of calls for reducing late-life care in the name of cost containment. Insurers are notorious for delaying treatment, while state programs have cutoffs. So it was that Oregon Medicaid denied prescribed chemotherapies for cancer patients Barbara Wagner (www.youtube.com/watch?v=UduKJhIDcEI) and Randy Stroup. Yet the rejection letters gave notice that the minimal cost of 100 Seconal capsules would be covered.
These real-world outcomes help explain why the leading national disability rights groups oppose assisted suicide. We are progressives at the forefront of a grassroots coalition spanning the political spectrum, joined by medical associations, palliative care experts, hospice workers and faith-based organizations.
Star-Ledger Editorial Page Editor Tom Moran predicts that assisted suicide will become a progressive cause like gay marriage. But while almost all progressives (including this one) support gay marriage, many oppose assisted suicide because of the real-world harm it inflicts on innocent people, including those with a terminal diagnosis.
For example, one out of six people admitted to hospice with a six-month prognosis outlives the doctor’s prediction (a common experience in the disability community), but nevertheless remain eligible. In fact, Oregon data shows that every year people who turned out not to be terminal received lethal prescriptions.
Many people do not realize that palliative care has advanced tremendously in the last 20 years, that there is no reason for anyone to die in uncontrolled pain. As leading expert Ira Byock testified against assisted suicide:
“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.”
Finally, people should be aware that the group sponsoring Maynard’s campaign is Compassion & Choices, formerly the Hemlock Society. At a recent Connecticut forum, C & C president Barbara Coombs Lee indicated a broader long-term agenda. “Coombs Lee also said the legislation would exclude people with dementia and cognitive declines, since they could not make the choice for themselves. ‘It is an issue for another day but is no less compelling,’” she said.
Death for people unable to choose is “no less compelling?” What starts today with Maynard’s choice ends with the euthanasia of grandma (“she’ll be better off”) with Alzheimer’s.
The Assembly must resist the pressure to make public policy based on one person. Assisted suicide laws are just too dangerous.
New Jersey native John B. Kelly is a disability rights activist based in Boston. He is the New England regional director for Not Dead Yet, grassroots disability groups opposed to the legalization of assisted suicide.