There are many critical civil rights issues facing Americans with disabilities and chronic health conditions – but the right to die is not one of them. Over the last 15 years, Americans have been engaged in an intensely controversial debate as to whether or not states should legalize assisted suicide for individuals with significant disabilities and terminal illnesses.
These laws – often promoted as “Death With Dignity” – appear on the surface to assist individuals expected to die within six months to request a lethal prescription from their physician. To the uninformed, these laws claim to enhance autonomy to a small number of individuals already at the end of their lives. Yet, as we’ve seen from years of experience where physician-assisted suicide has become legal, the reality is quite different. Far from assuring autonomy, the legalization of physician-assisted suicide has served to diminish true choice by creating an environment in which individuals denied access to necessary health care are made to feel like suicide is their preferred option. By advocating for so-called death with dignity, rather than the support and services people need to live, proponents of such laws bolster a system already denying dignity to hundreds of thousands of Americans with disabilities and chronic health conditions.
First, let’s explore the myths surrounding physician-assisted suicide laws. Those who believe so-called “Death With Dignity” laws will result in pressure on disabled Americans to take their own lives are frequently rebutted by saying such laws only apply to those with terminal illnesses, individuals who are already near death. While this may be the intent of many of these laws, the reality paints a very different picture.
According to the Oregon Public Health Division, the length of time between the request for a lethal dose of medication and actual death has been extended up to nearly three years. This suggests a substantial number of patients affected by the law were not terminally ill, but lived years after the initial request. And, as such, may have benefitted from other options, such as improved palliative care, pain management or the psychiatric counseling considered standard for any non-disabled individual making a comparable request.