Botanist and ecologist David Goodall ended his life May 10 in Switzerland by assisted suicide, a procedure which he had long advocated legalizing in his home country of Australia.
Goodall, 104, told journalists that he “looked forward” to ending his life and regretted not having ended it sooner, though he is not terminally ill. He also said he regretted that he had to travel all the way to Switzerland commit suicide.
Australia's Victoria state has passed an assisted suicide law that will go into effect in 2019, but it only allows for terminally ill patients to end their lives — Goodall would not have qualified under the law.
Critics have said that Goodall’s death was not simply a personal choice, but a political one that could have devastating consequences on vulnerable populations such as the elderly, the poor, and the disabled.
“It was clear he wanted to go out while getting a lot of attention,” said Stephen Drake, a research analyst with the advocacy group Not Dead Yet, a disability rights group which opposes the legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia “as deadly forms of discrimination.”
“If someone acts as he does, for people to call it a personal act is a lie; it was a political act,” Drake told CNA.
Only a handful of countries have legalized assisted suicide or euthanasia, including Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. In Switzerland, while assisted suicide is technically not legal, it is allowed under certain circumstances.
In the United States, assisted suicide is currently legal in Colorado, Vermont, Washington, California, Oregon, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia. The State Supreme Court of Montana decriminalized assisted suicide for physicians in 2009.
Currently, most legislation that allows for assisted suicide or euthanasia does so only in the cases of terminally ill patients.
However, Goodall’s case demonstrates that this is only the beginning for assisted suicide advocates, Drake noted.
Terminal illness is “the wedge issue that most people can agree on, that opens the door,” he said.
“Once you open the door, then the campaign becomes to kick it open as far as you can, and it shows that opponents in Australia who’ve been fighting to prevent the legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia are right on target when they say that this will begin to expand in very short order,” he added.
“Now the cause will be: why are we preventing poor old people from ending their lives?” he said.
Other vulnerable and undervalued populations, such as the poor and disabled, will be similarly at risk, he noted.
Matt Valliere, executive director of Patients Rights Action Fund, told CNA in e-mail comments that it would “be a mistake” to use Goodall’s death as an example in advocating for legalized assisted suicide.
“We know that legalizing assisted suicide only places the vulnerable at greater risk. Mr. Goodall himself had no terminal illness and yet was given lethal medication,” Valliere said.
“That is why many sick, poor, elderly and persons with disabilities oppose these laws - they will be the first to suffer from them.”
What concerns disability and advocacy groups most about legalizing assisted suicide and euthanasia is the potential for coercion and corruption - that suicide will become a “rational choice” for some undervalued populations, and their deaths seen as a duty rather than an unpreventable tragedy, Drake said.
“They will no longer be viewed as preventable tragedies but rational (ways) to end a life of suffering,” he said.
“But if you talk to people with disabilities, the suffering they will cite is not the disability itself, but the barriers and discrimination and open hostility they encounter in the culture they live in.”
Studies have shown that the majority of patients who request assisted suicide will withdraw that request when they are treated for depression. There have also been several cases of botched deaths in Oregon, in which a patient’s doctor was not present during the assisted suicide. Oregon has seen many abuses since since its legalization of assisted suicide, such as cases of pills changing hands, either intentionally or unknowingly, with lethal results.
Another concern is that suicide for vulnerable populations will be seen as a smart economic choice, Drake said.
Derek Humphry, founder of the Hemlock Society (now two organizations - Compassion and Choices, and Final Exit Network), wrote in 2000 about the “unspoken argument” for assisted suicide — that it would be cheaper to let the elderly and disabled die than to keep them alive.
“As technology advances, as medical costs skyrocket out of control, as chronic diseases predominate, as the projected rate of the eighty-five-and-older population accelerates, as managed care seeks to cut costs and as Medicare is predicted to go bankrupt by 2007, the impetus of cost containment provide impetus, whether openly acknowledged or not, for the practicalities of an assisted death,” Humphry wrote in his book Freedom to Die: people, politics, and the right-to-die movement.
Drake noted: “It’s one thing for me to say that, it’s another thing for Derek Humphry, who embodies the assisted suicide movement, to say it.”
Drake said that advocates for assisted suicide “either discount those concerns or frankly they don’t care, they figure the people who might be hurt by this won’t be them, and I think that’s what it boils down to.”