Leaders in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops applauded the National Council on Disability for its recent research on the risks of assisted suicide for people with disabilities.
“Every suicide is a human tragedy, regardless of the age, incapacity, or social/economic status of the individual,” said Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, and Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Florida.
Naumann is chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, and Dewane heads the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.
“The legalization of doctor-assisted suicide separates people into two groups: those whose lives we want to protect and those whose deaths we encourage,” the bishops said. “This is completely unjust and seriously undermines equal protection under the law.”
Last week, the National Council on Disability released findings of a national investigation into the effects of assisted suicide laws on people with disabilities.
In its examination, the council said it found “that the most prevalent reasons offered by someone requesting assisted suicide are directly related to unmet service and support needs.” The agency called on lawmakers to remedy these unmet needs through changes in legislation and funding.
It added that in states where assisted suicide is legal, “safeguards are ineffective and oversight of abuses and mistakes is absent.”
In the U.S., assisted suicide is legal in California, Colorado, Hawaii, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia, and in Montana by a court ruling. A law allowing it in Maine will take effect Jan. 1, 2020.
The National Council on Disability is an independent federal agency that advises lawmakers on how policies and practices affect those with disabilities. The council’s report, entitled “The Danger of Assisted Suicide Laws,” was released Oct. 9 as part of its series on bioethics and disability.
The report found that state regulations intended to prevent abuses in the practice of assisted suicide sometimes fall short. It pointed to instances of insurance companies denying costly, life-sustaining medical treatment while covering deadly drugs.
In addition, doctors rarely refer for a psychological evaluation before prescribing lethal drugs, the report found, despite the fact that depression is a leading factor in requesting assisted suicide.
Financial pressure may compromise patient freedom in making end-of-life choices, the report added, and misdiagnoses of terminal diseases may lead patients to end their lives under the mistaken assumption that they are close to death.
Neil Romano, chairman of the National Council on Disability, said in a press release that while fighting cancer, he was once given weeks to live. But today, years later, he is alive and thriving.
“I know firsthand that well-intending doctors are often wrong,” he said. “If assisted suicide is legal, lives will be lost due to mistakes, abuse, lack of information, or a lack of better options; no current or proposed safeguards can change that.”
“Assisted suicide laws are premised on the notion of additional choice for people at the end of their lives, however in practice, they often remove choices when the low-cost option is ending one’s life versus providing treatments to lengthen it or services and supports to improve it,” Romano stressed.
The agency’s report also documented suicide contagion in states that have legalized assisted suicide and pointed to an easing of safeguards initially intended to prevent abuses.
In Oregon, where assisted suicide has been legal for two decades, the report noted that the practice has been expanded to include non-terminal illnesses, such as arthritis and diabetes.
The National Council on Disability opposed the legalization of assisted suicide. It called for federal investment into long-term services and supports as an alternative to assisted suicide. It also urged further research “on disability related risk factors in suicide prevention, as well as research on people with disabilities who request assisted suicide and euthanasia.”
In their statement, Archbishop Naumann and Bishop Dewane urged lawmakers and medical professionals to take seriously the recommendations in the report.
“The human rights and intrinsic worth of a person do not change with the onset of age, illness, or disability,” they said.
“We must do what we can to uphold the dignity of life, cherish the lives of all human beings, and work to prevent all suicides.”