Editor’s note. This testimony was published on the Not Dead Yet website on June 23 .
Chairperson Alexander, Members of the Committee on Health and Human Services:
I am the director of Massachusetts Second Thoughts: People with Disabilities Opposing the Legalization of Assisted Suicide. We were the progressive voice in Massachusetts that helped defeat the assisted suicide ballot question in 2012, and again in the legislature last year. Our opposition is based in universal principles of social justice that apply to everyone, whether disabled or not. Drawing on those same principles, we supported the medical marijuana ballot question in 2012 of the relief it brings to many disabled people.
We chose our name Second Thoughts because we find that many people, once they delve below the surface appeal of assisted suicide, have “second thoughts” and oppose it. In Massachusetts a month before the election, 68% of voters supported the ballot question. But just as closer looks in Massachusetts – and this year in Maryland, California, Connecticut, among other states –– led to a considered rejection of assisted suicide, we urge you to reject B21-38 because of the real-world threats it poses.
If this bill passes, innocent people stand to lose their lives without their consent, through mistakes and abuse. There are no safeguards now in place or ever proposed that can prevent this tragically irreversible outcome.
Doctors misdiagnose and give incorrect prognoses, frequently. In the disability community, we have many members who have been given a terminal diagnosis, some since birth, some more than once. One Second Thoughts member, John Norton of Florence Massachusetts, was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in his first year of college – in 1955. He was told he would die in 3 to 5 years.
As a very physical person, a high school athlete, John was devastated by the diagnosis. As he began to lose function, he wrote:
I became depressed and was treated for my depression. If instead, I had been told that my depression was rational and that I should take an easy way out with a doctor’s prescription and support, I would have taken that opportunity.
Then something happened that doctors are never able to predict: six years after diagnosis, the progression of his disease stopped. Today, his condition is about the same. He is married, with three children and a grandchild. Now retired, he writes:
We have wonderful friends. I enjoy singing tenor in amateur choruses. I help other people by working as a volunteer driver. I will be 75 years old this coming September . If assisted suicide or euthanasia had been legal, I would have missed the bulk of my life and my life yet to come.
With legalized assisted suicide, this incorrect information would have cut short John Norton’s life. Studies have shown that 15-20% of the supposed “terminally ill” outlive their prognosis, leading to our current situation whereby hospice programs discharge 200,000 people per year. Every year in Oregon, reports show people living longer than a year after the suicide request.
Elder abuse, typically by adult children and caregivers, is an epidemic in every state. It is estimated that one out of every 10 people over the age of 60 is abused every year. With assisted suicide legal, there will inevitably be opportunities for foul play. Someone in line to inherit estate proceeds will be able to witness the written request for assisted suicide, pick up the prescription from the pharmacy, and even administer the lethal dose themselves – who would know? Since providers or disinterested witnesses are often not present at the death, we can’t know how people are actually dying. Last year in Oregon, 80% of program participants had no provider present when the drugs were administered.
Proponents talk a lot about pain and suffering, and cite polls that ask respondents whether they support doctors prescribing lethal medication to people about to die in unbearable pain. But the talk about pain is part of a simple bait and switch: terrify people with the prospect of dying in unbearable agony, then implement a program that prescribes suicide for mental distress.
The leading reasons for suicide requests cited in the Oregon reports by prescribing doctors are all about mental distress: feelings of lost autonomy, missing valued activities, feelings of lost dignity, distress about incontinence, and feeling like a burden. Pain (and fear of pain) is a trailing indicator.
Assisted suicide actually has much to do with the views of other people. Dignity, never defined in any of these bills, is defined as “the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect” – of other people. When people feel that their very existence is burdensome to others, they are experiencing lack of respect. Proponents exploit this fear by threatening people that their legacy will be memories of debility rather than accomplishment.
Disabled people reject these notions as insulting and dangerous. Dignity is inherent. For these reasons and more, every leading national disability rights group that has taken a position on the matter has gone on record in opposition. And that is why 12 Massachusetts disability rights organizations have come out against legalized assisted suicide.
Instead of creating a new medical treatment called “death with dignity,” let’s ensure that people have the in-home supports necessary to live in dignity. Old, ill, and disabled people deserve care that does not burden family and caregivers, care that includes mental health support for feelings of demoralization and depression.
Finally, opponents of assisted suicide have long warned against the incrementalist strategy of proponents to expand the reach of Oregon-style laws. We don’t need to cite the example set by countries like Belgium and the Netherlands (euthanasia for depression, fear of blindness, even tinnitus, not to mention the “mercy killing” of disabled newborns) to lend credence to these warnings. We can simply point to the proposals and statements by true believers at home.
A broader agenda was revealed by Oregon law co-author Barbara Coombs Lee last fall at a Connecticut forum. As the online journal CTNewsJunkie reported, “Coombs Lee also said the [Oregon-style] legislation would exclude people with dementia and cognitive declines, since they could not make the choice for themselves. ‘It is an issue for another day but is no less compelling,’” she said. Coombs Lee is now the president of the group Compassion & Choices, the saccharine rebranding of the old Hemlock Society.
Leading Massachusetts advocate for assisted suicide Dr. Marcia Angell now writes in favor of euthanasia. In Oregon, a bill has been submitted to extend the meaning of “terminally ill” from 6 months to 12. Once doctor-prescribed suicide is defined as a “benefit,” it is only natural to extend that benefit to more and more people, for more and more time.
I urge you to say no to legalized assisted suicide, now and forever.
John B. Kelly