Legalized Assisted Suicide Is Deeply Harmful for People with Disabilities

by Sophie Trist


Physician-assisted suicide (PAS) is deeply harmful to people with disabilities. Many “right to die” proponents scoff at disabled people’s concerns about assisted suicide, insisting that patients have full autonomy over whether and how to end their lives. But the truth is that for many disabled people, at the mercy of an often dehumanizing medical complex and predatory insurance companies or caregivers, this autonomy is a pipe dream. Because doctors hold overwhelmingly negative views about disability, legalized medical killing creates two healthcare systems, where the able-bodied receive suicide prevention and the disabled and mentally ill receive suicide assistance.


In 2013, forty-five-year-old Belgian twins Marc and Eddie Verbessem, who were born deaf, began seeking out a doctor who would help them die after discovering that they were going blind. The twins justified their wish to die by saying that they couldn’t stand the thought of never seeing one another again. Across the world, millions of deafblind people live rich and fulfilling lives; neither sight nor hearing is necessary to experience loving relationships or follow one’s dreams. But to the medical establishment and a large segment of the general population, disability is so feared and stigmatized that wishing to be dead rather than disabled is perfectly understandable. Instead of providing Marc and Eddie Verbessem with the support and psychological tools they needed to adjust to their blindness, their doctor killed them.


In 2016, a Wisconsin teenager named Jerika Bolen held a Last Dance suicide party with over a thousand attendees before ending her life. Jerika had spinal muscular atrophy Type II. Thanks to advances in medicine, people with this disability can now live well into their sixties; Jerika’s diagnosis was nowhere near terminal. If a nondisabled teenager had announced plans to throw a suicide party, she would have been given mental health treatment and encouraged to keep fighting for life, but a disabled teen wishing to end her life is framed as perfectly understandable, even “courageous.”


Assisted suicide puts financial concerns ahead of disabled people’s lives. When insurance companies are looking at the bottom line, suicide may be pushed as an option instead of costly treatments or palliative care. This played out in the case of Stephanie Packer, whose insurer refused to cover her chemotherapy treatments after California passed its End of Life Options Act. The lives of people with disabilities should never be left to the mercy of abusive caregivers or predatory insurance companies.


A vast majority of disability rights organizations and activists oppose assisted suicide because of the gulf between suicide prevention and suicide assistance, the consistent devaluing of disabled lives in healthcare, and disabled people’s heightened vulnerability to pressure and coercion. The UN’s Office of Human Rights agrees, arguing that disability should never be grounds for ending someone’s life because such policies would “legalize and authorize institutional ableism.”


At the root of assisted suicide is the idea that disabled, elderly, and terminally ill people are a burden, that life is only worth living with a healthy, “normal” body and mind. In a 2019 study of 112 Canadian patients who chose assisted suicide or euthanasia, over half cited a loss of independence and control as a primary reason for ending their lives. Many disabled people fight tooth and nail for legal, economic, medical, and social independence, so autonomy is very important to us. However, autonomy and independence do not determine human dignity. Combatting lethal ableism means rejecting the idea that independence is the defining factor of a life worth living. Disabled people will not be safe from lethal medicalized violence until the societal narrative shifts to reflect and acknowledge our full humanity and right to exist just as we are.


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