As multiple states consider assisted suicide legislation, disability activists are speaking out, saying the bills are slippery slopes that put the lives of people with disabilities at risk.
Connecticut lawmakers are now considering HB 5898, “An Act Concerning Aid In Dying For Terminally Ill Patients,” which would permit doctors to prescribe lethal medication to people with less than six months to live. The patient would be permitted to self-administer the medication when they wish to end their life.
HB 5898 is modeled after Oregon’s assisted suicide law, which was the first in the nation. On Monday, members of the state General Assembly’s Public Health Committee heard testimony from those who are in favor of the bill, and from those who are opposed.
Cathy Ludlum, one of the leaders of the group Second Thoughts Connecticut and a woman who lives with a disability, provided written testimony that was emailed to all members of the public health committee.
In the testimony, which was forwarded to CNA by Second Thoughts Connecticut, Ludlum explained that the language of the bill puts people with disabilities at risk.
“But the harsh reality is that (persons with disabilities) will be the collateral damage in any formalized death-by-choice system,” said Ludlum. “Many of us with severe and obvious disabilities are already too frequently thought of by medical practitioners as having reached a final stage, where death might be expected in the near future.”
Ludlum said the definitions in the bill mean that she herself would be defined as someone who is terminally ill, even though she is not.
That section defines a “terminal illness” as “final stage of an incurable and irreversible medical condition that an attending physician anticipates, within reasonable medical judgment, will produce a patient's death within six months.”
“Nowhere does it say ‘with or without treatment,’” Ludlum pointed out.
“Most people assume this legislation is for people who have exhausted all their treatment options, but that is not what it says.” Ludlum explained that she eats with a feeding tube and requires respiratory support when she sleeps.
“Without these treatments, I would not last six months,” she said. “I probably would not last six days. What is to prevent someone like me from showing up at a doctor’s office and saying, ‘I have had enough. I will be stopping all my treatment’?”
A typical person in this situation would not be allowed to kill themselves, and would instead receive counseling. Ludlum is concerned that someone with a disability “would be more likely to get compassionate nods of approval.”
Ludlum is also concerned that the law would enable doctors to steer patients with disabilities into ending their own lives, or stopping treatment needlessly. She noted that due to the language of the bill, which states that the lethal medication “may” be self-administered, as opposed to that it “shall be” self-administered, there would be nothing to prevent someone else from ending the patient’s life.
Another group opposed to assisted suicide laws is the United Spinal Association, which is a nonprofit organization dedicating to “improving the quality of life of Americans with spinal cord injuries or disorders.”
United Spinal’s President and CEO James Weisman told CNA that his organization was opposed to these bills not for religious or political reasons, but because “people - family members, and in the medical profession - often don’t understand the latent capacity of quadriplegics to live full, meaningful lives with jobs and families in the community, after (they) break their neck.”
He believes that assisted suicide laws are rooted in discrimination, because people are afraid of what life would be like with a disability.
"Nobody wants to have a broken neck. Everybody says they'd rather be dead,” said Weisman.
“Every single one of our members who's a quadriplegic says they wanted to die when they found out they were going to be a quadriplegic. But the overwhelming majority go on to leave meaningful, full lives.”
Weisman told CNA that he would like to see expanded access to palliative care for those who are in pain, as well as increased education for people in the medical field about how it is possible to live a meaningful life with a disability.
“The medical profession and the uninformed public encourage those who break their necks or have other injuries to end (their lives),” said Weisman. “It’s such a slippery slope when we decide who can live and who can die.”
Elsewhere in the country, 16 other states are in the process of passing similar legislation, including Maryland and Nevada.
Members of Maryland’s Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee approved the “End-of-Life Option Act” on Friday. The bill had advanced through the state House of Delegates earlier in March.
In Nevada, the state Senate is considering SB 165, which would allow doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medication to terminally ill patients over the age of 18. The bill has passed through one working session of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.
That bill, similar to Connecticut’s, defines “terminal condition” as “an incurable and irreversible condition that cannot be cured or modified by any known current medical therapy or treatment and which will, in the opinion of the attending physician, result in death within 6 months.”
Also like Connecticut, the bill does not specify if death will occur “with or without treatment.”