Case for ‘death with dignity’ collapses under scrutiny

By John Kelly

Editor’s note. John Kelly is director of Second Thoughts Massachusetts: Disability Rights Activists Against Assisted Suicide. This letter was published in the Berkshire Eagle on September 19.

John Kelly, Second Thoughts Massachusetts

To the editor:

I write to respond to the oped by John Berkowitz and three Western Massachusetts legislators in support of assisted suicide bill H.1994 (Eagle, Sept. 11).

Unsolvable problems with assisted suicide include the fact that terminal diagnoses are often wrong. Studies show that between 13 percent and 20 percent of people so diagnosed are not dying and may live years or even decades longer. As examples, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy lived a full year longer than his terminal diagnosis of two to four months, while Florence resident John Norton credits the unavailability of assisted suicide for decades of good life after a mistaken prognosis.

Assisted suicide is a boon to insurance companies, as it instantly becomes the cheapest “treatment.” (Search for stories of Californian Stephanie Parker and Nevada doctor Brian Callister.)

Against the writers’ claim that there hasn’t been one documented case of abuse, I encourage readers to search for Oregonians Thomas Middleton (financial abuse), Wendy Melcher (a trans woman), and Kathryn Judson (physician pressure).

The bill requires no independent witness at the death, so the supposed safeguard of “self-administration” is toothless. Especially vulnerable will be the 10 percent of Massachusetts seniors estimated to be abused every year, almost always by family members. A caregiver or heir to an estate can witness a person’s request, pick up the prescription and then administer the lethal dose without worry of investigation — the bill immunizes everyone involved.

The writers say the bill is necessary to prevent “great pain and unrelieved suffering” at the end of life. But official reports from Oregon and Washington show that the top five reasons to request assisted suicide do not include pain, but rather “existential distress” (New England Journal of Medicine) over such issues as dependence on others, loss of abilities and feeling like a burden.

We disabled people reject the prejudice that physical dependence makes our lives undignified. Assisted suicide exacerbates social class distinctions. Support is concentrated in wealthier white communities such as the Pioneer Valley, while opposition is centered in communities of color and the working class. In 2012, black and Latino voters opposed assisted suicide by more than 2 to 1, effectively defeating assisted-suicide ballot Question 2. People historically disrespected and neglected by our health care system are rightly suspicious of the power to prescribe death.

The Legislature should continue rejecting a bill that would push vulnerable people toward early deaths.

John B. Kelly