Assisted suicide is growing in popularity across the United States — but even as it gains supporters, others are speaking more loudly against it. People in the disability community are fighting back, pointing out how the legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia puts their lives at risk.
John Kelly is the regional director for New England’s chapter of Not Dead Yet, a disability rights organization that opposes assisted suicide. In an interview with The Independent, he explained how the support for assisted suicide, both culturally and politically, is troubling for people with disabilities. “I myself am paralysed below my shoulders,” he said. “So I get to see a barrage of better-dead-than-disabled messages, as carried in such by films like Me Before You, Million Dollar Baby, etc.”
Kelly argues that legalizing assisted suicide adds to the cultural notion that a person is better off dead than disabled because the argument in favor of it assumes that once a person no longer has autonomy, their life is not worth living. “When we look at the reported reasons for assisted suicide out in Oregon in 2019, it’s all about autonomy,” he said, citing Oregon’s 2019 assisted suicide data. That data showed that 87% of suicidal patients reported a loss of autonomy as the main reason for wanting to die. Ninety percent reported not being able to participate in activities they enjoyed as another reason, with 72% reporting a “loss of dignity,” and 59% reporting a fear of being a burden on friends and family members as their reason for wanting to die.
Note that none of these involves fear of a slow or painful death.
“These bills depend on a view that people with severe disabilities, and that includes people who are ‘terminally ill’, have such a low quality of life that they’re better off dead,” Kelly said. “What these bills say is that this is a personal benefit, a social benefit. And so when people are given a pass to commit assisted suicide because of their disabilities, well, then those same views will be applied to people who are outside of an assisted-suicide situation.”
He continued, “People are very susceptible to others, and when everyone around you thinks things would be better if you were dead, well that’s going to encourage people.”
Instead of continuing to promote the notion of being disabled as equivalent to being miserable, Kelly said we should be helping those with disabilities instead. And pressuring them to die is not help. “We make sure that people know that they’re valued and they’re just as much of a full human being as they have ever been,” he said. “It’s tragic to see people wanting to die because of shame and humiliation.”
Dr. Brian Callister also spoke to The Independent, voicing concerns about how assisted suicide affects people’s ability to receive quality health care. It’s an issue he’s spoken about before. He blew the whistle when some of his patients seeking life-saving treatment needed transfers to their home states of California and Oregon (which have legalized assisted suicide) and their insurance companies refused to pay for the treatment Callister had recommended. Instead, the companies recommended assisted suicide.
“Quite frankly, I was stunned. This is something we didn’t talk about, we didn’t request, we didn’t ask for,” he explained at the time, adding, “It’s a lot cheaper to grab a couple drugs and kill you than it is to provide you life-sustaining therapy.” Callister told The Independent that neither of his patients would have been considered terminal with the recommended treatment.
Assisted suicide advocacy organizations, like Death with Dignity, excuse actions like these by claiming “limited benefit and very high cost,” as cited by The Independent. Yet Callister brought up another issue: unused assisted suicide drugs.
“What really concerns me, though, is what happens to the prescriptions that aren’t used?” he asked. “These are obviously deadly drugs and roughly one-third of these prescriptions go unused.” There are often no requirements that a medical professional be present to ensure they are taken by the proper person. In Oregon, 62 of 290 patients who received the fatal drugs chose not to take them. “There’s no mechanism for tracking that these are in medicine cabinets somewhere,” Callister pointed out.
Legalizing assisted suicide is trending in popularity among numerous countries in recent years. Yet these ethical concerns put forth by doctors and disability rights activists are legitimate and must not be ignored. The lives of millions of people depend on it.
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