Friday, October 31, 2014

Assisted suicide laws are more dangerous than people acknowledge

This article was published by on October 31, 2014

John Kelly
By John B Kelly - the New England regional director for Not Dead Yet, a grassroots disability group opposed to the legalization of assisted suicide.

The media is flush with the sympathetic story of Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old newlywed with aggressive brain cancer. Her video advocating expanded assisted suicide laws has been seen millions of times, prompting another push in the State Assembly to pass an assisted suicide bill.

When the focus is on an individual, assisted suicide can sound good – who’s against compassion or relieving suffering? But a closer look reveals that assisted suicide puts vulnerable people in mortal danger. The more people learn about the real-world implications of these bills, the more they oppose them. (Our group takes its name – Second Thoughts – from this fact). Last year, the Legislatures of New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut rejected assisted suicide bills.

The simple truth is that not all families are loving. Elder abuse is a nationally recognized epidemic. Every year, New Jersey elders suffer an estimated 175,000 cases of reported and unreported abuse, most by adult children and caregivers. Financial gain or emotional relief creates motives for steering someone toward death. The two witnesses to the death request could be an heir and the heir’s accomplice. Once the lethal prescription leaves the pharmacy, there is no further supervision and no independent witness required at the death to ensure that the lethal dose is self-administered.

Depressed people will be harmed. Under Oregon’s program, Michael Freeland obtained a lethal prescription for his terminal diagnosis, despite a 43-year history of severe depression, suicide attempts and paranoia. The prescribing doctor said a psychological consult was not “necessary.” When Freeland received volunteer suicide prevention services, he was able to reconcile with his estranged daughter and lived two years post-diagnosis. Oregon’s statistics for the last four years show that only 2 percent of patients are being referred for psychological evaluations.

Barbara Wagner
In our era of imposed austerity, the media is full of calls for reducing late-life care in the name of cost containment. Insurers are notorious for delaying treatment, while state programs have cutoffs. So it was that Oregon Medicaid denied prescribed chemotherapies for cancer patients Barbara Wagner ( and Randy Stroup. Yet the rejection letters gave notice that the minimal cost of 100 Seconal capsules would be covered.

These real-world outcomes help explain why the leading national disability rights groups oppose assisted suicide. We are progressives at the forefront of a grassroots coalition spanning the political spectrum, joined by medical associations, palliative care experts, hospice workers and faith-based organizations.

Star-Ledger Editorial Page Editor Tom Moran predicts that assisted suicide will become a progressive cause like gay marriage. But while almost all progressives (including this one) support gay marriage, many oppose assisted suicide because of the real-world harm it inflicts on innocent people, including those with a terminal diagnosis.

For example, one out of six people admitted to hospice with a six-month prognosis outlives the doctor’s prediction (a common experience in the disability community), but nevertheless remain eligible. In fact, Oregon data shows that every year people who turned out not to be terminal received lethal prescriptions.

Many people do not realize that palliative care has advanced tremendously in the last 20 years, that there is no reason for anyone to die in uncontrolled pain. As leading expert Ira Byock testified against assisted suicide:

“If I thought lethal prescriptions were necessary to alleviate suffering, I would support them. In 34 years of practice, I have never abandoned a patient to die in uncontrolled pain and have never needed to hasten a patient’s death. Alleviating suffering is different from eliminating the sufferer.”
Finally, people should be aware that the group sponsoring Maynard’s campaign is Compassion & Choices, formerly the Hemlock Society. At a recent Connecticut forum, C & C president Barbara Coombs Lee indicated a broader long-term agenda. “Coombs Lee also said the 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.

Death for people unable to choose is “no less compelling?” What starts today with Maynard’s choice ends with the euthanasia of grandma (“she’ll be better off”) with Alzheimer’s.

The Assembly must resist the pressure to make public policy based on one person. Assisted suicide laws are just too dangerous.

New Jersey native John B. Kelly is a disability rights activist based in Boston. He is the New England regional director for Not Dead Yet, grassroots disability groups opposed to the legalization of assisted suicide.


Jersey Cub said...

John's argument is excellent. It hit the news big time in San Francisco today. Almost all reports did not contain any input from those opposed to Physician Assisted Suicide. The worst was National Public Radio's (NPR) All Things Considered. The report focused on a Dr who assisted in the suicide of her patient. Again the focus on a single patient and how courageous the Dr was.

Mike Hodas

FLorence said...

The overall harm to society is far too great. How would we council those who are suicidal into choosing life, into seeing their worth when the state sanctions the taking of a life. Be very wary of the language being used by those who support Assisted suicide. Often words can hide the real meaning of something. Final solution, liquidation, comes to mind. Now it is dying with dignity. In fact,those words have been taken from Palliative Care. Assisted suicide is killing. Palliative Care is managing pain and supporting family through death. There is a huge difference and impact on society.

Anonymous said...

I have had a bad experience when my mom was dying (slowly and with good care in a Toronto hospice). Most of the staff were wonderful, but one doctor seemed determined to make our family's grieving process conform to her expectations (she was providing counselling to my mom and moreso to our family). Even though mom's pain was under control and we were all moving slowly, in our ways, through the letting go process, this doctor had her own ideas about how we should be feeling, acting, etc. she would turn up with poetry books and subject us to affected readings of poems about death and dying, then talk to us about how we had to let go, send my mom off on her final journey, endless cliches that were tedious, intrusive and not helpful. We began trying to discourage her politely from visiting which only seemed to make her more determined to 'be our guide' through the process, claiming that she understood our resistance to facing mom's death (that was what we were all doing there), then started talking to us about helping mom along the way so that we could move on with our lives. I have to say that my siblings and I got the impression this so-called doctor was more interested in having us all following her advice than actually supporting us where we needed support. to be honest, she was sort of ghoulish. Our interactions with her seemed to have far more to do with her needing to be in charge of our feelings and decisions than with her providing appropriate responses to what was going on.

Not to say that this represents all palliative care workers, but it made a difficult, painful process harder having to contend with a professional who clearly was not appropriately conducting her self in her highly powerful role. We did not follow her down the path to easing mom out of life with morphine or whatever they use, but I wonder how many other families have fallen prey to her.