By Daniese McMullin-Powell
Assisted suicide is a dangerous public policy that threatens the most vulnerable in society, especially people like me – people with disabilities. Upon initial consideration, many do not see how assisted suicide is particularly dangerous to the disability community. However, based on the weakening of the already-flimsy safeguards that is going on in other states that allow the deadly practice, the danger of abuse in assisted-suicide laws is real. I urge the Delaware Legislature to take a hard look at the facts of assisted suicide and to propose laws that help address the reasons people seek assisted suicide in the first place.
Assisted-suicide laws are inherently discriminatory and target people with disabilities. These laws lead to abuse and harm because the so-called safeguards within assisted-suicide laws are weak. According to a study published by the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency, the safeguards in assisted-suicide laws are ineffective, and oversight of abuses and mistakes is absent. People with disabilities already face an uphill battle trying to receive fair treatment in a society that equates functionality with worth. It makes no sense to add to the disability community’s list of worries by legalizing a practice that would inevitably lead to abuse.
Alarmingly, in Oregon, where assisted suicide has been legal the longest, the safeguards that proponents used to pass assisted-suicide legislation are now being weakened and characterized as barriers. Originally, Oregon had a 15-day waiting period in its law, which was valuable because it gave patients time to reflect and seek a second medical opinion. After all, assisted suicide is not a reversible decision.
However, in 2020, Oregon removed the 15-day waiting period for patients whose physicians believed they would die before the end of the 15-day waiting period. Last year, 20% of patients received the waiver, and some even died on the same day that they requested assisted suicide. This same-day suicide assistance doesn’t give patients time to seek a second opinion, or even to change their minds.
Once legalized, there is always a push to make suicide more accessible. In truth, there are no safeguards that could adequately protect vulnerable people from abuse and harm due to assisted suicide. Even so, to remove existing safeguards, no matter how flimsy, would be foolish.
Assisted-suicide policy fails to address the primary reasons that drive people to seek it in the first place. Proponents claim that people seek assisted suicide to avoid unbearable pain at the end of life. However, this is simply untrue.
According to data from Oregon, people most often cite disability-related concerns as their reason for seeking assisted suicide. Their top reasons include loss of autonomy, decreasing ability to participate in life activities and loss of dignity. These are serious concerns that people in the disability community live with every day. Instead of legalizing assisted suicide, society should focus on educating, and removing the stigma surrounding disability. We should focus on providing better care because the above concerns are all treatable with appropriate, multi-disciplinary care. If legalized, assisted suicide sends the wrong message to people with disabilities: You’re better off dead than alive.
As a result, assisted suicide is a deadly public policy that puts people with disabilities at greater risk for abuse and harm. The so-called safeguards in assisted suicide laws are flimsy at best and have been found ineffective at protecting patients from abuse. In states where assisted suicide is already legal, there are incremental steps being made to lessen what little safeguards are in place. At the end of the day, this confirms what we’ve always known: Assisted suicide is about fear of disability.
I want to encourage our Delaware Legislature to educate the public and reduce the stigma around disability. The people of Delaware deserve quality medical care and supports at all stages of life, not a premature death.
Daniese McMullin-Powell is a disability advocate who lives in Newark, New Jersey.