I've spent my professional life fighting to improve the lives of those living with a disability. I've pushed for services, treatment and medical coverage for those with disabilities while helping them establish independent lives. I joyfully celebrated the 10th anniversary of the US Supreme Court's landmark decision affirming the right of individuals with disabilities to live in their community of choice and fully rejected the state of Georgia's attempt to institutionalize the elderly and those with disabilities. I also reject the attempt by a small group of wealthy elites trying to turn assisted suicide into some right-wing or religious debate. Certainly there may be people who support or oppose assisted suicide based on one of those factors, but at its heart opposing assisted suicide is decidedly progressive.
We all must take a skeptical look and acknowledge the role that money and power play in end-of- life decisions, and how assisted suicide is being used by some health care companies and decision-makers to increase their bottom line by denying treatment.
Physician assisted suicide disproportionately affects the poor and people living with disabilities. That explains, at least in part, why there is widespread opposition from virtually every disability rights group in the nation, including the National Council on Disability, the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL), the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, the World Institute on Disability and FREED.
Assisted suicide doesn't exist in a vacuum as proponents would lead you to believe with their simplistic slogan. Rather, the current profit-driven health care system urges doctors to reduce care in order to cut costs. A lethal prescription costs no more than $300. Compare that to the cost of treatment for most long-term medical conditions and serious illnesses that can run into hundreds of thousands giving insurance companies or others making treatment cost decisions a direct financial incentive to suggest assisted suicide in lieu of expense.
This isn't a theoretical problem. In Oregon where assisted suicide is legal, cancer patients Barbara Wagner and Randy Stroup were denied coverage of their chemotherapy prescribed by their doctor but were informed by their health care provider, Oregon's state run health plan, that it would pay for their assisted suicide. When assisted suicide is offered as a "choice" and coverage for care is denied, the patient is left with no control over their medical choices and no real choice at all.
The state's supposed safeguards also haven't stopped the mentally ill from obtaining the lethal drugs by "doctor shopping," where patients interview doctors until they find one willing to write the deadly prescription.
Michael Freeland, a man with a 40-year documented history of depression coupled with multiple suicide attempts, doctor shopped until he found a physician sympathetic to the pro-assisted suicide movement who wrote him a prescription for the lethal pills. Keep in mind, Freeland had no underlying disease and was not terminally ill. He only needed mental health care and compassion.
Another supposed safeguard is the six month rule that only patients with less than six months to live can qualify for assisted suicide. We all know someone who has outlived their doctor's prognosis. That's no fault of doctors, but no one is perfect. Doctors do their best to define how long a sick patient has left, but doctors are fallible and are often wrong with these diagnoses, which is deadly in the case of assisted suicide.
Despite these serious flaws, Oregon's law continues to be the model for other state legalization efforts. This year, a small handful of lawmakers in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New Jersey attempted to advance legislation that would copy the deeply flawed Oregon model of physician-assisted suicide. Once again, hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising and lobbying by pro-assisted suicide pushers was rendered void by the powerful testimony of Disability Rights Advocates, palliative care specialists, hospice workers and physicians. Both Democrat and Republican lawmakers rightly saw assisted suicide legislation as dangerous to the most vulnerable people in our society.
Connecticut's assisted suicide bill was sent to the Judiciary Committee and has little hope of being voted on this year. Governor Chris Christie publically expressed his opposition to New Jersey's bill, New Hampshire overwhelmingly rejected theirs by a stunning vote of 219-66 and the Massachusetts legislature sent theirs to study and with no chance of moving forward this year; Massachusetts voters turned out to vote assisted suicide legalization down in 2012.
I recognize that additional assisted suicide legislation will continue to be pushed in additional states and advocates for such a law will again introduce legislation in states that have previously rejected their arguments. But Disability Rights advocates will be at the forefront to push back because of the dangers it poses.
Since 1997, roughly 600 people have utilized Oregon's assisted suicide law. Without minimizing their suffering, it's troubling to think how many more have been affected and will be affected by the deadly mix between assisted suicide and profit-driven managed health care.
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