By John B. Kelly
Even as the Oregon-based Death with Dignity National Center and other assisted suicide proponents continue to insist that “there have been no efforts to expand either (Oregon or Washington’s) law beyond their strict guidelines,” here comes House Bill 3337, which would stretch the meaning of terminal illness from six months to 12 months.
Oregon became the first state to legalize assisted suicide in part by highlighting so-called “safeguards” like the requirement that people have a “terminal disease” — the prediction by two doctors that “within reasonable medical judgment” a person would die inside six months. But even at six months, the death knell of “terminal” was arbitrary and approximate. Studies have shown that 15 to 20 percent of the supposedly “terminally ill” outlive their prognosis, leading to our current situation whereby six-month hospice programs discharge 200,000 people yearly for living too long!
The Oregon Health Authority has participated in this “terminal” charade by not disclosing how many program participants lived longer than six months, giving instead a range of survival after the initial request for prescribed suicide. Nevertheless, every report this century has included someone who lived longer than a year — one person living almost three years after first request. Under the new proposal, it is guaranteed that innocent people would lose years of their lives under the mistaken belief they were dying when they were not.
Opponents of assisted suicide have long warned against the incrementalist strategy of proponents to expand the reach of Oregon-style laws. We don’t need to cite the example set by countries like Belgium and the Netherlands (euthanasia for depression, fear of blindness, even tinnitus, not to mention the “mercy killing” of disabled newborns) to lend credence to these warnings. We can simply point to the proposals and statements by true believers at home.
A broader agenda was revealed by Oregon law co-author Barbara Coombs Lee last fall at a Connecticut forum. As the online journal CTNewsJunkie reported, “Coombs Lee also said the [Oregon-style] legislation would exclude people with dementia and cognitive declines, since they could not make the choice for themselves. ‘It is an issue for another day but is no less compelling,'” she said.
No retraction followed from Coombs Lee, the president of the group Compassion & Choices, the saccharine rebranding of the old Hemlock Society. Last month, Coombs Lee and others praised the recent decision by the Canadian Supreme Court to open up assisted suicide to people with significant disabilities — whether “terminal” or not. Despite intense debate over the definition of “voluntary,” leading Massachusetts assisted suicide advocate Dr. Marcia Angell now writes in favor of euthanasia.
This bill, says sponsor Rep. Mitch Greenlick of Portland, is intended to enable people with diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, aka Lou Gehrig’s disease), to kill themselves while still physically able. Next comes euthanasia for Barbara Coombs Lee and Marcia Angell’s people with dementia. And then people with disabilities who are not terminal, such as that praised Canadian decision. Proponents are making it all too clear that disabled people have every reason to fear for our lives.
John Kelly is the New England regional director of Not Dead Yet, a national, grassroots disability rights group that opposes legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia as deadly forms of discrimination.