A new report from an independent federal government agency released this week revealed that, despite efforts to provisions designed to protect patients from abuse, assisted suicide laws throughout the United States sill pose several dangers to people with disabilities.
The report, "The Danger of Assisted Suicide Laws," released by the National Council on Disability on Wednesday, found, "Assisted suicide laws contain provisions intended to safeguard patients from problems or abuse," but such provisions "are ineffective, and often fail to protect patients in a variety of ways."
These include insurers denying expensive medical treatment in lieu of lethal drugs, misdiagnoses of terminal illnesses leading to assisted suicide decisions, and "demoralization in people with disabilities" leading to assisted suicide.
The council's concerns with the practice of assisted suicide, the report explained, "stem from the understanding that if assisted suicide is legal, some people's lives, particularly those of people with disabilities, will be ended without their fully informed and free consent, through mistakes, abuse, insufficient knowledge, and the unjust lack of better options."
"Assisted suicide laws are premised on the notion of additional choice for people at the end of their lives," NCD Chairman Neil Romano said in a statement, "however, in practice, they often remove choices when the low-cost option is ending one's life versus providing treatments to lengthen it or services and supports to improve it."
Assisted suicide is currently legal in eight states and the District of Columbia, according to the report, which also took issue with the rhetoric often used to support and defend such policies.
"[M]ost assisted suicide laws reference 'dignity,'" the report explained. "The idea that hastened death is a pathway to dignity for people facing physical decline reveals the public's extreme disparagement of functional limitations and a perception that 'dignity' is not possible for people who rely on supports, technology, or caregivers to be independent or alive."
When these kinds of assumptions are combined with laws and policies that allow people to enlist the help of medical professionals in ending their lives, the council wrote "they create a deadly mix that poses multifaceted risks and dangers to people with disabilities as well as people in other vulnerable constituencies" including the elderly or those with chronic and progressive conditions.
As one example of those endangered by assisted suicide policies, the paper cited the case of Barbara Wagner a grandmother who was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2008. Oregon's Medicaid program wouldn't cover cancer treatment, but offered to cover lethal drugs instead. It also cited the case of a mother of four with cancer whose insurer turned her down for chemotherapy, "but offered low-cost suicide pills" to her over the phone instead.
Regarding the problem of demoralization of people with disabilities, the paper cited the research of Dr. Carol Gill, Ph.D., a University of Illinois at Chicago professor who finds that "the tendency to equate disability with burdensomeness is pervasive in our society, placing people with disabilities and seriously ill people at substantial risk of demoralization."
The Patients Rights Action Fund, which opposes assisted suicide policies, welcomed the council's findings.
"We applaud the National Council on Disability for their thorough research that documents how assisted suicide laws and practice are a direct assault on the dignity and lives of people with disabilities," PRAF executive director Matt Valliere said in a statement. "In both the practice and the public policy itself, assisted suicide is inherently discriminatory against people with disabilities, making the struggle to gain equal access to health care even more difficult, resulting in death for the devalued protected class."
The National Council on Disability was created in 1978 by federal law and became an independent agency in 1984. The council consists of a mix of both presidential and congressional appointees. The findings published Wednesday are part of the panel's report series on bioethics and disability.