Suicidal Tendencies

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.

For Maria Matzik and others, these endorsements are more than political or ideological issues. Matzik, who uses a ventilator and works with the Access Center for Independent Living in Dayton, Ohio, told The Progressive (Sept. 1996) of her battles with nurses during a 1993 hospital stay. “The nurses kept asking me to sign a ‘do not resuscitate’ order. They said that meant nothing drastic would be done if I had a cardiac arrest. When I said I wouldn’t sign the DNR order, they said it didn’t matter. Because I used a ventilator, nothing would be done if I had a cardiac arrest.”

It’s this sort of policy that has disabled people and conservative activists concerned. As Liz McCloskey notes in Commonweal (April 5, 1996), assisted suicide has traveled on the coattails of an altogether noble effort to affirm people’s right to refuse medical treatment at the end of life. “The ‘right to die’ movement challenges the technological ethos of the medical profession–the dogma that when something can be done it should be done,” she writes. But, she adds, “Instead of moving the medical profession toward a caring ethic for dying patients, it would thrust physicans into the role of death providers, in effect giving them one more option on the menu of technical fixes for the messy reality of death.”

Many disabled activists and conservatives wonder whether we’re already on a slippery slope toward a society in which euthanasia is an accepted medical practice, as it is in The Netherlands.

Herbert Hendin, executive director of the American Suicide Foundation and author of Seduced by Death (Norton, 1996), notes that “virtually every guideline established by the Dutch to regulate euthanasia has been modified or violated with impunity. The Netherlands has moved from assisted suicide to euthanasia, from euthanasia for people who are terminally ill to euthanasia for those who are chronically ill, from euthanasia for physical illness to euthanasia for psychological distress, and from voluntary euthanasia to involuntary euthanasia.” Hendin cites a Dutch government report that found there have been more than a thousand cases of involuntary euthanasia (or what the Dutch call “termination of the patient without request”).

“Doctors are healers, not killers,” says former U.S. surgeon general C. Everett Koop, a fervent opponent of assisted suicide. “Do we want old folks going around here, as they do in the Netherlands, wearing signs saying “Do Not Euthanize”? The disabled community has reason to be scared of assisted suicide.

Who knows when a doctor, if permitted to assist in a suicide, would feel that a patient, because he’s disabled, has a life not worth living?

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