Disabled people to rally against proponents of assisted suicide As Supreme Court hears case, protesters outside will claim discrimination

December 31, 1996|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

As the issue of assisted suicide goes before the Supreme Court on Jan. 8, disabled people plan to rally outside, protesting that the practice could leave them vulnerable to being rushed into death.

"We're going to make some noise," says Diane Coleman, an organizer of the grassroots disabled-rights group called Not Dead Yet.

Already feeling that society at best overlooks them -- and at worst discriminates against them -- some disabled people fear that making assisted suicide legal will especially put them at risk.

"There is a societal prejudice against people with disabilities," says Janine Bertram of Washington, who is helping to organize the event. "It's because able-bodied people decide that they couldn't stand living like that."

Many proponents of assisted suicide believe that guidelines can be written to limit the practice. For example, a group of doctors, nurses, ethicists, lawyers and hospital administrators in San Francisco has written model rules that would allow doctors to assist only competent adults with less than six months to live.

But Coleman says it would be impossible to limit the practice to the terminally ill should the courts find a constitutional right to assisted suicide. And even some supporters describe assisted suicide as "a slippery slope," an area of uncertainty without clear limits.

Two federal appeals courts this year upheld the right to assisted suicide but did not rule that the right applied only to the terminally ill.

Some disabled people fear they will not be offered the life-prolonging treatments that the able-bodied would receive. And they fear that relatives and doctors might encourage them to ask for help in ending difficult lives -- particularly now, as medical care is changing dramatically.

"There is a tremendous danger in allowing physician-assisted suicide, given the fact that there's already a significant movement to ration health care," says Paul Longmore, a history professor at San Francisco State University.

"This is about protecting our minority group and getting society to wake up to how deeply prejudiced against people with disabilities it really is," says Coleman of Forest Park, Ill.

"If you've got significant health impairments you don't get suicide prevention counseling," says Coleman. And if assisted suicide is made legal, "as a little bonus, we'll help you do it. It's discrimination, pure and simple."

Coleman describes supporters of doctor-assisted suicide as "basically the upper middle class, used to having control and having their needs met. I understand that some people want this right, but they should understand it threatens the lives of many. I'm really sorry. Individual rights are often in conflict with the majority."

Doctors, Bertram says, have the same prejudices that the rest of able-bodied society does. "There's research that shows doctors routinely underestimate our quality of life as compared with our estimation. "

Bertram's husband, Evan J. Kemp Jr. is "significantly disabled" by a neuro-muscular disease, she says. "He can move his head and one hand." Yet he headed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under President George Bush. "He's absolutely brilliant, and he does have good quality of life."

"We are not saying people don't have the right to their own life and their death," Bertram says. "We just don't want physicians involved."

"There are 43 million of us," says Lucy Gwin of Rochester, N.Y., editor of Mouth magazine, which reports on issues affecting the disabled. "If we wanted to die, we know how to pull a trigger."

Longmore disputes the claims that assisted suicide empowers the patient.

"It perpetuates the power of physicians," he says. "They'll be the ones deciding who's terminal. They will decide who's emotionally ready. They will decide who to help."

Pub Date: 12/31/96

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