People with disabilities know how to deal with catastrophic losses, but this loss is too much. Today, Governor Jerry Brown signed a dangerous bill making California the 5th state to legalize assisted suicide, following Oregon, Washington, Montana, and Vermont. Governor Brown said he signed the bill because he wouldn't want to be in pain in his final days -- regardless of the fact that pain relief is readily available without killing patients.
The fact is, this bill should never have reached the governor's desk. The End-of-Life Option Act, as it was called, was a re-packaged version of an earlier assisted suicide bill which failed in the California assembly for lack of support. It was quickly re-drafted and introduced through a special committee - a process which circumvented debate on the full floor of the assembly. Proponents spared no expense in pushing this bill through a special legislative session meant to address healthcare financing, not something as grave as this bill. It's why I am so sad and angry it passed. The bill was railroaded in a venue never intended for an issue as serious as assisted suicide. I am very disappointed in Governor Brown.
And thousands of Californians with disabilities are now at risk because of his decision. The End-of-Life Option Act was sold as giving people choice and control at the end of life. Yet the bill's language is stacked against the patient and applies to people with years, even decades, to live. And who actually has the choice and control? Doctors make the determination that a person is terminally ill - the advertised "safeguards" are entirely in the hands of doctors, not the patient. And doctors are often wrong at predicting life expectancy (in Oregon, which uses a nearly-identical definition of terminal disease, an 18-year-old with insulin-dependent diabetes is 'eligible' for assisted suicide).
On the subject of doctors, in Oregon, when prescribing doctors fill out a final report after an assisted suicide, among the top five reasons given for the request for assisted suicide are feelings of being "a burden on others" (40%) or feeling a "loss of autonomy" (92%) or "loss of dignity" (79%). These have nothing to do with pain from a terminal disease. Rather, these are psychological issues which can be effectively treated. Yet the End-of-Life Options Act does not even require that psychological support services be given to alleviate these problems. All too often, when the medical condition is fraught with challenges, people - even doctors - tend to think that "you are better off dead than disabled."
When I broke my neck in a 1967 diving accident, and doctors told me I would be a quadriplegic, I sank into suicidal despair. There were many nights I would wrench my head on my pillow, hoping to break my neck up at a higher level, and so end my misery. Thankfully, my depression lifted through the support of family and friends.
Looking back, my problem was never my spinal cord injury. My problem was clinical depression and that can be treated. It's the situation thousands of Americans with disabilities find themselves in - but all too often, these people only hear that "I can understand; I wouldn't want to live in your situation, either."
What does this have to do with an assisted suicide law for people with a terminal illness? Who is to say when multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy or ALS is classified as "terminal?" Already, many doctors are quietly expanding the definition of "terminal" to include people with chronic and incurable disabling conditions. And while people who receive a diagnosis of a disabling condition often experience suicidal feelings, later they adapt very well. Working through that initial period of despondency takes a lot longer than the 'waiting periods' of existing physician-assisted suicide laws.
In short, there are tremendous risks to this law, including suicide contagion, elder and disability abuse, and the inevitable expanse to broader groups of people to reduce their choice. These overwhelming risks of an assisted suicide law far outweigh the potential "benefits" for a handful of people. It should not be the state's responsibility to help despairing people kill themselves. Rather, let's pour more effort into improving pain management therapies and strengthening the hospice movement. Let's lift people out of depression through compassionate support, family assistance and help.
A fundamental fear of pain and disability should never be the basis for social policy. An assisted suicide law is no way to promote a nurturing and caring society. Let's strengthen the cords of compassion that have characterized our nation since the founding of our country. Let's create a national narrative that life is worth living, no matter how bleak the circumstances. Let's recapture the true meaning of compassion, reminding people that it's not a lethal prescription. After all, life is the most irreplaceable and fundamental condition of the human experience, and we must do all we can to protect, defend, and preserve every life - especially those with disabilities.
We believe in real choices and ending all choices. We believe in protecting people when they are at the lowest time of their life, when they are living through the deep dark time of their life. We believe in hope, maybe not for a cure, but hope for a good death surrounded by caring people and not abandonment in a lethal concoction.
We believe in true choices and in a caring society.