Physician Assisted Suicide


Supporters of the assisted suicide bill blame its opposition on the religious right. This distorts the facts. Assisted suicide is opposed on secular, civil rights grounds by at least eleven national disability organizations. The reasons fit perfectly with the progressive tradition of Hawaii’s Democratic Party. It’s time this fact was recognized.

I am a member of Not Dead Yet, one of these organizations. I am an advocate of civil rights, of government responsibility for social justice and welfare, and of a woman’s right to abortion. I agree with religious conservatives on almost nothing except opposing assisted suicide.

The arguments for assisted suicide are a form of libertarianism, a version of extreme individualism. Libertarians want to legalize all drugs, including heroin, and oppose civil rights laws and workplace safety regulation. Individualism run wild.

Hawaii’s Democrats usually recognize the fallacies of libertarian extremism. For example, big-business conservatives give libertarian arguments against occupational safety standards and the minimum wage. They say people should be able to “choose for themselves” an unsafe workplace or poverty wages. Democrats aren’t fooled. They created these laws to protect workers from exploitation. Without the laws, the choice of a dangerous job would not be free but forced. A forced choice (“Risk your life or you’ll be fired”) is not a free choice.

The so-called free choice of assisted suicide will soon become a forced choice. Terminally ill or disabled people sometimes do have suicidal feelings when they feel ashamed of their own condition, or when they feel that they are a burden on their families. The desire for death under those conditions is not free, but forced. It is forced by the absence of social support.

But (the proponents argue) the bill only applies to people who are terminally ill. Why disability groups oppose it? For good reason. We have studied the rhetoric of the assisted suicide movement. Their real reason for suicide is not illness itself, but a fear and loathing of disability.

Janet Good of the Hemlock Society puts it this way: “Pain is not the main reason we want to die. It’s the indignity. It’s the inability to get out of bed or get to the toilet, let alone drive a car or shop without another’s help.” A Honolulu attorney and member of the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Committee on Death with Dignity said on KHET in 1996 that he was not afraid of dying, but he was afraid of “being in diapers and being dependent on others.” The law applies to terminally ill people because of their disabilities.

Better dead than disabled.

Hundreds of Hawaii’s citizens live every day with the same disabilities that these suicide advocates consider so horrible. We have families, and jobs, and we love life. What message do we get from the fear and loathing of disability that we hear? That we would be better off dead.

The assisted suicide movement has traditionally advocated suicide not just for terminally ill people, but for people with disabilities as well. Derek Humphry, the movement’s granddaddy, says this in Final Exit: “What can those of us who sympathize with a justified suicide by a handicapped person do to help? When we have statutes on the books permitting lawful physician aid-in-dying for the terminally ill, I believe that along with this reform there will come a more tolerant attitude to the other exceptional cases.” Today the terminally ill, tomorrow the disabled. We have good reason to feel threatened.

Democrats have led the national fight for Patients’ Rights legislation to protect against the cost-cutting excesses of HMOs. Think of the windfall when HMOs can offer a cheap suicide rather than expensive medical care. The choice would have to be “voluntary” of course. But thrifty HMO executives will make sure that costly patients are well informed of their right to an inexpensive assisted suicide.

Medical pressure for quicker deaths of people with disabilities is not a paranoid fantasy. My friend Henry lives in California, and like me uses a wheelchair. Henry also has a heart condition. His HMO doctor invited Henry to sign a Do Not Resuscitate order, so he wouldn’t be resuscitated after a heart attack. The doctor (like Good, Humphry, and the Honolulu attorney) believed Henry’s life was not worth living. Henry refused to sign. The doctor offered it again at his next visit. And his next. Henry changed his HMO in order to escape this doctor’s “care.”

Democrats are exactly the people we expect to protect us from this exploitation. The web site of the Hawaii Democratic Party says “We advocate social, health, and educational programs targeted to our keiki, our kupuna, our sick, our disabled, and our disadvantaged, so that we malama [care for] our most vulnerable people.”

Wake up, Democrats. Don’t vote for assisted suicide just because the religious right is against it! Think for yourselves. Assisted suicide betrays your commitment to civil rights for all, and your promise to protect your most vulnerable people. People with disabilities and illnesses need social support. They do not need the forced choice of assisted suicide.


A longer version of this article was submitted to the Hawaii State Legislature on 3/18/02.


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