By Diane Coleman, President of the disability rights group - Not Dead Yet.
This past Monday, the Syracuse Post Standard published an op-ed I wrote that gives a bit of the history behind the position that so many national disability groups have taken in opposing assisted suicide laws. Our position often surprises people because we are also such strong supporters of self-determination by people with disabilities, but we also oppose discrimination, especially medical discrimination. Here’s part of the discussion:
Those of us with serious disabilities have good reasons to be skeptical about the mantra of choice being used to market assisted suicide in our profit-driven health care system. Anyone could ask for assisted suicide, but the law gives doctors the authority to decide who is eligible.
Doctors used to exercise near-total control over the lives of people like me with significant disabilities, discouraging parents from raising such children at home, sentencing us to institutions, and imposing their own ideas about what medical procedures would improve our lives.
Disability groups started paying attention to the problem of doctors making life and death determinations in the 1980s in high-profile court cases involving the right to refuse treatment. One involved Elizabeth Bouvia, a 26-year-old woman with cerebral palsy who had a miscarriage and marriage breakup and wanted a hospital to make her comfortable while she starved herself to death. Other cases involved men on ventilators stuck in nursing facilities like Larry McAfee, who wanted the right to live in apartments or real homes, or else “pull the plug.” The doctors, courts, media and public all viewed these severely disabled individuals as the equivalent of terminally ill. They did not get suicide prevention equal to that offered non-disabled people, nor the right to live in real homes instead of facilities, but courts uniformly granted them a “right to die.”
Then the 1990s brought Dr. Jack Kevorkian, conducting assisted suicides using lethal drugs, with two thirds of his body count being people who were not terminally ill. As before, the difference between being disabled and dying was not recognized or considered relevant. As before, the difficulties disabled individuals faced in living – community access, getting a job, getting married – were not considered, or worse, accepted as rationales for ending their lives.
To read the whole op-ed, go here. We were told that the piece would also appear in the print edition sometime this past week. And there are a number of comments, including two from me and two from Stephen Drake in response to others.