Wednesday, June 13, 2018

California can right the wrong of assisted suicide

The following article was published as an opinion column by The Press Enterprise on June 12, 2018

By Marilyn Golden - Senior policy analyst, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund.

Marilyn Golden
California made a mistake by legalizing assisted suicide, but now it has a chance to correct its error. California’s assisted suicide law was overturned by Judge Daniel Ottolia because the legislative process was not properly followed. If Judge Ottolia’s ruling stands, it will be a great protection for people with terminal illness, economic disadvantage, and especially people with disabilities.

But California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is appealing Judge Ottolia’s ruling in an effort to once again make assisted suicide legal in California. It is disappointing to see the person responsible for upholding the rule of law and the state’s constitution, defending an illegally passed law. No matter the procedural problem this court decision is based upon, disability rights advocates are opposed to assisted suicide laws because they have harmful impacts on people with disabilities.

Sign our petition: Say NO to assisted suicide in California. (Link).

Contrary to much of the rhetoric surrounding this debate, pain is not the top reason cited in most cases of assisted suicide. The California law is virtually the same as Oregon’s, the first assisted suicide law in the U.S. According to a recent report by the Oregon Public Health Division, the top five reasons for requesting suicide drugs by the patients were:
  • “Losing autonomy” (89.5 percent)
  • “Less able to engage in activities making life enjoyable” (89.5 percent)
  • “Loss of dignity” (65.4 percent)
  • “Losing control of bodily functions” (36.8 percent)
  • “Burden on family, friends/caregivers” (48.9 percent)
Each of these concerns describe what people with disabilities experience on a daily basis. These numbers strongly suggest that it is disability, or fear of disability, behind most assisted suicides under Oregon’s so-called model law. Further, this speaks volumes about our society and how it is terrified of living with a disability or caring for someone who lives with a disability.

Also alarming is that people experiencing depression may not be protected from obtaining lethal drugs. This occurred, for example, to Oregonian Michael Freeland. He had a 43-year history of depression and suicide attempts. Yet when Freeland saw a doctor about arranging an assisted suicide, the physician said he didn’t think that a psychiatric consultation was “necessary.” But the law’s supporters frequently insist that as a key safeguard, depressed people are ineligible for assisted suicide. If Oregon’s safeguards are claimed to be so thorough, how did Michael Freeland receive lethal drugs?

Like in other states where assisted suicide is legal, the “safeguards” built into California’s law are hollow. If a person fails to qualify for assisted suicide by one doctor’s evaluation, that person or their family, as in the case of Portland, Oregon, resident Kate Cheney, can shop for a doctor who will give them the lethal dose, over and over again if necessary.

As a disability rights advocate, there is no doubt in my mind that assisted suicide will have a profound negative impact on public insurance coverage of expensive medical treatment. This has also happened in Oregon, including to cancer patient Barbara Wagner, whose insurer denied coverage for a particular prescribed chemotherapy regimen. However, she was instead offered drugs that would have killed her by assisted suicide. Do we really think insurance companies will do the right thing, or the cheap thing?

Judge Ottolia’s ruling has provided a golden opportunity for California to reassess its stance on assisted suicide and expand access to palliative care and in-home and community-based personal care services. Lack of access to services is a pervasive problem for the disability community. However, allowing assisted suicide to be reinstated in California would undermine efforts to fix this problem, by allowing the cheaper, easier option of hastening one’s death as the only alternative to which everyone has equal access.

Suicide is not medical care, and we should not treat it as such. We urge California to seize this opportunity to help people with terminal illness, with economic disadvantage, and with disabilities by accepting Judge Ottolia’s ruling and rejecting the assisted suicide law. California should provide vulnerable people with authentic help, not this dangerous so-called medical treatment.

Marilyn Golden is a senior policy analyst with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund.

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