Legalized assisted suicide in Massachusetts would disproportionately impact the poor, disabled, and communities of color, said a group of physicians and disability activists during a press conference on Thursday, September 30.
The Massachusetts legislature will be having a public hearing on the End of Life Options Act Oct. 1. The bill would allow doctors to prescribe lethal medications to patients with six or fewer months to live. The End of Life Options Act is modeled after similar legislation in Oregon.
According to palliative care physician Dr. Laura Petrillo, the legislation is “not appropriate for Massachusetts.”
Petrillo, who was based in California prior to moving to Massachusetts, said that when California instituted its own assisted suicide law, there was “time and care” used to best discern how to implement the act. She said assisted suicide in California caused a “dramatic shift in how medicine is practiced” and “profoundly affects everyone involved.”
With the coronavirus pandemic, she said, it’s the “worst possible time” to be having these sorts of conversations.
What’s more, explained Petrillo, the desire for assisted suicide is by no means “a universal feeling,” and that the desire to hasten death is often one of a “privileged segment” of society.
“The vast majority of patients request [assisted suicide] to have absolute control over their moment of death,” she said, not because of pain or other factors. Conversely, people with a history of mistreatment by the medical system--the poor, the disabled, and people of color, “feel like their lives are being threatened by a law like this.”
John B. Kelly, a disability rights activist and writer based in Boston who leads several groups concerned with disability rights and against assisted suicide, agreed with Petrillo that assisted suicide tends to be looked upon favorably by a privileged segment of society.
Kelly noted that in 2012, “wealthy, whiter towns” voted to legalize assisted suicide in Massachusetts, while working-class towns and towns with a predominantly minority population were opposed. That measure failed to pass by a vote of 51.9% to 48.1%.
He also agreed with Petrillo’s take that assisted suicide is mainly about control, rooted in a fear of disability.
“It’s about escaping the ‘existential distress’ some people experience over depending on others, of feeling undignified, and like a burden,” said Kelly.
Instead of assisted suicide, Kelly suggested that Massachusetts instead move to fund home care for patients, “so that no one has to rely on unpaid caregivers and face the prospect of a nursing home or assisted suicide.”
“Massachusetts should provide world-class palliative care,” he said. “Equality under the law depends on it.”
Kelly, who described himself as a quadriplegic “paralyzed from the shoulders down” said that for him and others with severe disabilities, “quality of life” are “the most fearsome three words in the English language.”
“These laws promote writing-off people as having too low of a quality of life,” said Kelly. He added that the pandemic has further exacerbated this mentality, specifically mentioning the deaths of Michael Hickson and Sarah McSweeney, two people with disabilities.
During a hospitalization with pneumonia prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Kelly said that his brother was questioned by his doctor about his potential quality of life, something he said would not have happened if he had been able-bodied.
“How dare that doctor ask a question like that when he would not ask it of someone with a similar case of pneumonia but had a so-called normal life,” said Kelly.
“We ask people to just observe the crushing oppression of disabled people and the free-loading ideas in society that some people are better off dead than alive,” he said. “I could be a poster boy for the ‘better dead than disabled’ movement.”
Stephanie Packer, a California woman with scleroderma, spoke about how she had been denied coverage of treatment for her disease by Medi-Cal, California’s Medicaid program, but was offered drugs for her suicide for a copay of just $1.20.
“They don’t realize how dangerous these laws are,” said Parker, adding that her insurance company rationalized that it would be “cheaper” for her to die.
California, she said, even factored in cost saving when it was analyzing legalizing assisted suicide in the state legislature.
“California predicted beforehand that they would save money by covering lethal drugs,” she said.
“[Assisted suicide] is not who we are as people,” said Parker. “There are better ways. The voices of patients are being silenced right now, and they’re vulnerable of everything being pulled off because of money.”