Assisted Suicide as a Cure for Disabilities

Assisted Suicide as a Cure for Disabilities

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Supporters of physician-assisted suicide often claim to favor it only for cases of terminal illness. Yet some disability rights advocates, including the group "Not Dead Yet," have warned that this agenda threatens the lives of people with mental or physical disabilities. This debate has intensified in recent months, in part due to a December 1997 statement by Faye Girsh, executive director of Hemlock Society USA. In the context of a murder trial in Louisiana involving a man who had killed his father with Alzheimer's disease, Girsh issued a statement on euthanasia and assisted suicide for people with disabilities generally:


"Some provision should be made for a situation in which life is not being sustained by artificial means but, in the belief of the patient or his agent, is too burdensome to continue... A judicial determination should be made when it is necessary to hasten the death of an individual whether it be a demented parent, a suffering, severely disabled spouse or a child" [PR Newswire, 12/3/97].


Not Dead Yet vigorously objected to the statement and launched a protest at Hemlock's Denver headquarters, prompting a "clarification" in the latest issue of Hemlock's newsletter TimeLines. Hemlock says that the statement was "Girsh's own opinion" as an individual, and that "press reports" had omitted references making it clear that she was only citing a model proposed by a Canadian expert as one approach among others. In fact the original Hemlock press release, issued through PR Newswire and listing Hemlock's national public relations director as the contact for media inquiries, does not substantiate either point.


Clearly Hemlock sees this as a sensitive point, and has posted "An Answer to the Disabled" on its Web site. This "Answer" may itself raise new questions. It says that Hemlock "takes issue" with groups like Not Dead Yet regarding "the right of dying patients to seek help from their doctor in hastening their death." But it proceeds to blur this line -- "Indeed, having a chronic, terminal illness generally renders a person disabled" -- and declares that "it is up to each individual to determine for themselves when their quality of life is unendurable." The bottom line: "Disabled persons have every right to protect their interests -- but not at the expense of the rest of us" [].


Jack Kevorkian's recent assistance in the suicides of two men who were not terminally ill but rendered quadriplegic by accidents -- Roosevelt Dawson, 21, in February and Matt Johnson, 26, in May -- has sharpened the debate further.

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Asked about the Johnson case, Ms. Girsh again provided a justification for assisted death in cases of disability: "Many people with severe, disabling chronic illnesses do suffer in many ways worse than people with terminal illnesses because there's no end in sight," she says [San Francisco Examiner, 5/10]. Another leading assisted suicide group, Compassion in Dying, has openly expanded its agenda to cover "incurable or terminal illness" [CID fundraising letter].


Hemlock's "Answer" also claims that "we have no evidence" that "health care professionals are too quick to assume that disabled people are 'better off dead'." But at the recent annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in Minneapolis, researchers released survey results indicating the opposite. The poll of 1000 neurologists showed that in considering whether to offer a risky, expensive but possibly life-saving treatment, 46% would take the patient's physical condition into account; 26% would be influenced by the patient's age, 20% would withhold the treatment based on ability to pay, and almost half would be influenced by the amount of brain damage the patient already had. Among those commenting on the survey was Dr. Kathleen Foley of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, who said many studies show doctors assuming that patients with physical limitations have lives not worth living -- even when the patients themselves enjoy life [UPI, 4/28].

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