Suicidal Tendencies

Will the disabled fall victim to the “right to die”?

| January-February 1997

A majority of Americans, according to a recent Gallup poll, believe that doctor-assisted suicide should be legalized to ensure that everyone has the right to a dignified death. But members of Not Dead Yet, a coalition of disabled people, beg to differ. If physician-assisted suicide is legalized, says the group’s co-founder Diane Coleman, the “right to die” could all too easily become an obligation—not only for the disabled, but for anyone whose life the society feels isn’t worth saving.

Our culture “transmits the message that disability is a fate worse than death,” says Coleman, an attorney and wheelchair user. “Many people believe that people with disabilities have a ‘low quality of life.’ In this era of managed care, society thinks, ‘Why help these [disabled] people? Their life has no value. It would be more compassionate to give them the right to die.’”

These fears have created an odd—albeit informal—alliance between disability rights groups and right-to-life activists, who last summer made headlines protesting Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s appearance at the National Press Club in Washington. Though disability activists are careful to dissociate themselves from the “right to life” movement, their goals are the same: to prevent government-sanctioned doctor-assisted suicide.

Bob Listen, a Not Dead Yet organizer, says that the group is “not a part of the religious right. We’re not putting anyone’s religion down. For us the issue isn’t a question of the ‘the right to life’ but of civil rights.”

The group’s members are taking their message to the public with tactics ranging from ACT UP-style street tactics and the infiltration of hospital ethics committee meetings.

Still, they face an uphill battle against liberal forces that believe assisted suicide is a right protected by the Constitution. Last spring the Ninth and Second Circuit Courts of Appeals ruled that the practice was legal. And the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on the question early this summer. Even some religious leaders, such as Bishop John Shelby Spong of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, have endorsed the practice as a morally and theologically justifiable choice.

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