Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Disability Activist Jean Stewart’s Letter to Governor Brown

This letter was originally published on the Not Dead Yet website on September 21.

[Editor’s Note: Jean Stewart is a long time disability activist, one of the earliest members of ADAPT and other social justice efforts that include civil disobedience, and author of the acclaimed book, The Body’s Memory. She is one of those who, over two decades ago, urged the formation of an organization like Not Dead Yet.]

Ask Governor Jerry Brown to veto the assisted suicide bill.

Jean Stewart
Dear Governor Brown,

I am a 68-year-old power wheelchair user and a resident of El Sobrante. I urge you to veto AB 2X-15, which I strongly oppose. I believe my life, and the lives of my disabled and elderly friends, will be directly threatened if AB 2X-15 becomes law. Physician assisted suicide, like the death penalty, is final and irreversible. When abuses are committed or mistakes are made, the dead person cannot be brought back.

The lives of people with disabilities are historically undervalued by American society. All too often, family members, caregivers, the medical establishment, and the courts regard us as a burden on society; this attitude becomes internalized, leading many of us to choose physician assisted suicide when, in our hearts, we would prefer to go on living with our disabilities. In Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal, 40% of people who died by assisted suicide reported feeling like a burden on their families and caregivers as a reason for requesting lethal drugs, according to the Oregon Public Health Division’s records. (By contrast, only 24% reported inadequate pain control, or concern about it, as a reason.) An overwhelming 91% cited “losing autonomy” as a reason. Those of us living productively with our “loss of autonomy” within a pervasively ableist society are inclined to translate this reason as fear of disability.

Passage of AB 2X-15 would provide society with legal cover to dispose of us. If we care about true justice, we must strive to provide elderly and disabled people with the supports necessary to live full, rich lives with comfort, pride, and, yes, DIGNITY. Such supports include affordable, accessible housing (NOT institutionalization in nursing homes), home care, and appropriate medical care, including comprehensive, compassionate palliative care.

I would remind you that a treatable condition or illness can quickly morph into terminal when the treatment is denied by one’s insurer; as you know, it’s commonplace for insurers to deny treatment, particularly to poor people—and disabled folks are statistically among the poorest populations in the country—and people of color, who are demographically underinsured and less skilled at navigating the bureaucratic jungle of red tape required to challenge an insurer’s decision. A number of cases in Oregon involve individuals who chose suicide when their insurers denied them treatment.

The “safeguards” provided in AB 2X-15 provide no guarantee against abuse. In Oregon, “doctor-shopping” in search of a physician who will support assisted suicide has become commonplace. Further, the so-called “safeguards” do nothing to prevent abusive family members or caregivers from steering an individual toward assisted suicide. Nor do the safeguards prevent economic pressures from driving an individual to “choose” lethal drugs, as has been documented in a number of Oregon cases.

There is nothing reasonable, fair, or compassionate in the rush to legalize physician-assisted suicide. This “choice” is not a choice.

Sincerely yours,
Jean Stewart
El Sobrante, CA

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