As I write this, New York State’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, is still considering Myers v. Schneiderman, a lawsuit that has the potential to strike down the State’s existing law barring physician-assisted suicide (PAS), thus making it legal. If the court rules against the suit, the plaintiffs will have run out of options in the state’s justice system. In any case, you should know why disability civil rights advocates filed a joint friend-of-the-court brief, held a rally outside the court in the rain, and have been fighting alongside Attorney General Eric Schneiderman on the side of keeping the existing law in place.
Perhaps you’ve heard the reasoning of the PAS supporters that striking down the current law would merely give terminally ill patients with chronic pain the opportunity to end their suffering and “die with dignity.” You might logically think, “What could be wrong with giving those who are about to die anyway relief from months of agony?”
The problem is, once PAS is legal and accepted, there will be intense pressure from relatives and insurers on those who are not terminal, but require extensive, inconvenient and costly life-sustaining care, to stop being a "burden" and take the "dignified way out.” Advocates have seen this in Oregon, where PAS is now legal, and are horrified by the possibility of it spreading across the nation – that having a severe disability could essentially be a capital offense!
This reminds me of something a good friend told me: That, when she was a young child, during times of particular frustration, her mother would lash out by disclaiming, “You’re more trouble than you’re worth!” Back then, it was like a hard slap in the face, and it still stings some 60 years later. Nobody wants to hear a denunciation like this, especially from a loved one. Would you say it to a parent or grandparent whose life is not at risk, but whose age-related ailments and disabilities require care that taxes the family’s time and resources?
New York attorney Adam Prizio handled the friend-of-the-court filing on behalf of the 11 disability organizations. “Our basic position is that when some people get suicide prevention while other people get suicide assistance, and the difference is the person’s age, disability or health status, that’s unlawful discrimination,” said Prizio. “It’s a problem that certain people are being told that others not only agree with their suicide, which is bad enough, but will even help them carry it out. It’s a deadly form of discrimination and, as our brief says, it violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
Leading the 10 other organizations in the Disability Rights Amici was the assisted-suicide opposition group Not Dead Yet (the Resistance), whose president and CEO, Diane Coleman, shared experience based on developments across the country. “Elders and people with disabilities too often face economic or other pressures to get out of the way. If assisted suicide becomes an accepted practice, coverage may be denied for more expensive healthcare, as we’ve already seen in Oregon and California. What is being promoted as a ‘right to die’ could very quickly become an expectation, even a duty to die in this climate.”
Whatever the court will decide (or has decided), I still feel that the right to live — or not — is a decision between an individual and his or her Maker and should never be determined by the doctors, the relatives, or the insurance companies based on economic considerations. Once assisted suicide becomes standard practice — and if your involved and expensive care could give an excuse for an argument that you have no quality of life — to borrow a phrase, “Be afraid. Be very afraid!”
Sarah K. Lanzo is the director of Independent Living of Niagara County, a member of the Western New York Independent Living Inc. family of agencies that serve individuals with disabilities. For more information, call 284-4131, extension 200.