I am a man with a physical disability. I live in Vermont, one of the few U.S. states where physician-assisted suicide is legal. I worry greatly that “death with dignity” laws are going to have unintended consequences for people like me who choose to live with disability and dignity.
The Daily Mail and Telegraph recently reported what can be described as no less than a horror story in the Netherlands. An elderly patient diagnosed with dementia “often exhibited signs of fear and anger, and would wander around the building at nights.” This was apparently irregular behavior for this patient, so a doctor decided it was an appropriate time to administer the lethal dose.
This should have been the first red flag. A doctor made a health-care decision for the patient. Even though the patient had earlier said she might want to consider physician-assisted suicide later in life, this was not her decision at this time. This is the exact opposite of the standard of choice advocated by many proponents of physician-assisted suicide.
This story, believe it or not, gets even worse. Before administering the lethal dose, the doctor drugged the patient’s coffee with a sedative. People are rightfully outraged when a college student slips a date rape drug into someone else’s drink at a party, and this is just as egregious. She had no idea what they were doing to her, but this doctor gave her a pill so she could be abused in a way the doctor deemed right.
That sedative was not quite powerful enough, however, because partway through the procedure, the patient woke up and protested. According to the Daily Mail, in the days before her murder she had repeatedly said, “I don’t want to die.” The doctor then recruited family members to restrain the patient while the murder was committed. This is a doctor killing a patient who was making verbal requests to stop the procedure. This is a terrifying situation, and this is murder.
You Can’t Determine My Quality of Life
While presumably anybody would be afraid of something like this happening to them, for people with disabilities, the dangers seems even more imminent. This patient was taken advantage of because of dementia. The doctor made a massive assumption that this patient must have a terrible quality of life because of her dementia. Her disability caused this doctor to conclude that her life was no longer worth living.
According to Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, the research does seem to indicate that many people choose physician-assisted suicide because of fears about “loss of autonomy and dignity, the inability to enjoy life and regular activities, or other mental illnesses, rather than physical pain.” These reasons largely relate to quality of life. Perhaps this doctor saw this patient losing autonomy, happiness, and mental capacities as her dementia progressed. She presumably thought she was acting in the best interests of her patient.
That’s just the point, though. She thought she could make a life or death decision for her patient because of how she perceived her patient’s quality of life. She thought her patient’s quality of life was so low that it justified forcing death on her.
It is sometimes hard for people without disabilities to understand how people with them, like me, live our lives. Perhaps my life has some different obstacles. As a power wheelchair user, I admit that my life is not always easy. Stairs are my nemesis. However, I would never say that I have a low quality of life. My own perception of my life is that it is going pretty well. Although I do not have a spinal cord injury, the research about people who have had a spinal cord injury seems to indicate that I am not alone in this estimation. People with disabilities generally do not evaluate their quality of life that much differently than people without disabilities.
Actually, Dead Isn’t Better than Disabled
This attitude that some people are better off dead than disabled is not simply confined to this one doctor in the Netherlands. Hollywood seems to be buying into the myth by presenting stories like “Me Before You” and “Million Dollar Baby” where somehow the noble choice necessitates dying rather than living with a disability. Simply take the jump and benefit the lives of all the people around you who don’t need to be burdened with you anymore. They will be free. You will be dead, but that’s not important.
Another tragic application of this ideology are the hideously high abortion rates of children prenatally diagnosed with Down Syndrome. In 2010, 42.5 percent of children prenatally diagnosed with Down Syndrome were aborted in the United Kingdom, and some studies show numbers worse than that. Clearly, the parents who are going to have these children felt that life would be better off if those children were never born.
This would not be a discussion if money was not somehow involved. A study from the Canadian Medical Association Journal claims legalizing physician-assisted suicide will reduce annual health-care spending by somewhere between $34.7 million and $136.8 million. Saving money should not even be a consideration in a situation like this.
I understand that people like myself have expenses that other people do not. However, considering money in these contexts creates substantial pressure to choose options like physician-assisted suicide rather than treatments that extends life. It has already happened in Oregon, where a woman was denied life-saving treatment but authorized to choose suicide. If money starts determining what options are available, many lives will be unwillingly lost.
Think About What We’re Doing Here
When you combine all of these attitudes with physician-assisted suicide, the table is set for disaster. Doctors try to play God and determine when life is worth living, with or without the consent of the patient, because clearly they are the experts. Proponents of physician-assisted suicide always say choice is important, but clearly, that choice can be violated by people in positions of authority who feel like they know better.
Society adds fuel to the fire and reinforces this perception living life with a disability is worse than being dead. Therefore, it was obviously reasonable for the doctor to make this decision against the explicit verbal requests of the patient because she must not have known what she was saying anyway, and her quality of life must have been so terrible that it was a merciful decision to simply put an end to her assumed suffering.
Finally, those who pay for medical treatments decide that life is too expensive. Making life or death decisions based upon our pocketbook commodifies human life. In a society as rich as ours, that’s a preposterous proposition. A civilized, rich society does not ration care and kill off expensive people. It figures out how to provide and prioritize care to the neediest members of society, whose numbers are very few.
As a man with a disability, I think about this quite often, and it is terrifying. I am fortunate to have supportive family and friends who completely support my decision to embrace life and live it to the fullest. Yet I worry about the people who do not have what I have. With no one around them to provide this reinforcement, they are at the mercy of doctors who might take life into their own hands. They are continually hearing messages from culture that say that they are not valuable, and they hear that there are actually a drain on resources. They are being weeded out as they make this decision they cannot take back.
We need to focus on embracing life rather than diminishing it. We need to become a culture that is pro-life from beginning to end. We need to become a society where physician-assisted suicide is not just illegal but is actually unthinkable.