Arguing Life, Death and Assisted Suicide

Nancy Valko
February 29, 2016
Reproduced with Permission
Nancy Valko

In the article "Sides discuss NY proposal for aid in dying" , the exchange between Diane Coleman, a founder of Not Dead Yet , the foremost disability organization fighting physician-assisted suicide, and Dr Timothy Quill, who fought for the constitutionality of physician-assisted suicide in the landmark 1997 US Supreme Court Vacco v Quil l decision, is very enlightening.

Diane Coleman of Not Dead Yet spoke simply and eloquently:

"I don't think I speak for all (opponents), but the disability community's core message is that if assisted suicide is legal, some people's lives will be lost due to mistakes, coercion and abuse, and that's an outcome that can never be undone.

There is inherent discrimination in assisted-suicide laws. Most suicidal people receive suicide prevention. Assisted suicide laws would carve out an exception to that, and that exception would apply to people who are elderly, ill, disabled, and those are devalued groups in society. … Assisted-suicide laws would say, 'these certain people, we not only agree with their suicide but give them the means to carry it out.' We're saying it comes down to social justice. Equal rights means equal suicide prevention."


"It's really not about physical pain. If you look at Oregon reports, about reasons people want to commit suicide, the reasons are things like feeling like the person has lost their autonomy, they've lost their dignity, they can't do the things they used to do. They feel like a burden on their families. Those are psychosocial reasons that relate to the disability that people have when they have an advanced stage or chronic condition."

On the other hand, Dr. Quill portrayed assisted suicide as little more than a benign discussion:

"Whether or not this practice is legalized, seriously ill patients are asking us to talk about it, they're asking us to consider it" said Quill, founding director of the palliative care program at URMC and a board-certified palliative care consultant. (Emphasis added)

But to the question "Why do people with a terminal illness want to end their lives?", Dr. Quill telling states:

"Some of it has to do with severe symptoms. I would say that's not the majority. The majority is people who are tired of dying. It's going on way too long for them. The kind of debility and weakness that accompany it, particularly for people that are used to being in charge of their lives, is very, very, very hard . Some of those people want to talk about what options they have to accelerate the process ." (Emphasis added)

This is very different from the way physician-assisted suicide has been sold to the public as a necessary last resort for terminally ill people in "unbearable pain". However, as a 2014 article "Dignity, Death, and Dilemmas: A Study of Washington Hospices and Physician-Assisted Death " admits, pain is not even a requirement for receiving physician-assisted suicide in Oregon and Washington state:

The authorizing legal statutes in both states make no reference to the experience of severe pain or intolerable suffering as an indication for a patient to make a request for physician-assisted death but rely entirely on the entitlement due a patient in respect of their personal dignity. A patient rights framework provides the primary moral structure … (Emphasis added)

Thus, physician-assisted suicide is really about power and control over death, not the suffering of the individual. And it is this power and control that has led European countries like the Netherlands to expand physician-assisted suicide even to non-terminally ill people who cannot or have not made the death decision themselves such as babies with deformities and people with dementia, mental illness or other impairments.

Closer to the US, the Canadian Supreme Court has legalized physician-assisted suicide but still without formalized rules, even on conscience rights . In the province of Quebec, legal injection euthanasia kits can be distributed to any doctor who wants them.

The Assisted Suicide Agenda in the US

It is alarming that the influential American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine that had this same Dr. Timothy Quill in the article as a recent past president and honoree of their Visionary award . But it should not be surprising that the AAHPM has changed its former position of opposition to physician-assisted suicide to a position of "studied neutrality" towards what it now calls "physician-assisted death". Neutrality is progress to physician-assisted suicide activists like Dr. Quill and organizations like Compassion and Choices that need to neutralize medical opposition as much as possible while quietly setting up relentless campaigns to legalize assisted suicide in every state. If enough states give in, a new Supreme Court decision may even overturn the Vacco v Quill decision and legalize physician-assisted suicide throughout the US.

But in the meantime, trying to sell "neutrality" to doctors and convincing the media to change the term "physician-assisted suicide" to "physician-assisted death" cannot mask the inevitable and lethal damage done not only to individuals but also to our medical and legal institutions that can no longer ensure ethical protection for our lives.