The loss of human life in any circumstance is tragic. While many acts of violence are imposed outwardly, suicide is a uniquely poignant and painful form of violence that faces inward. As a society, we are quick to mourn those lost to suicide and to call for its prevention when it affects someone we know from the media or our own lives. Social media platforms have added
ways to detect and report signs of suicidal thoughts demonstrated by its users so that
intervention can be prompt and successful. The phone numbers for suicide hotlines are
frequently circulated. More and more resources are being made available to those who are
contemplating suicide so that they can receive the help they so desperately need.
So why does that fervor for prevention disappear when someone is not able-bodied?
The movement to legalize assisted suicide flies in the face of the suicide prevention measures
that are gaining traction in other settings. All people are deserving of suicide prevention care,
regardless of their health, age, ability, level of independence, or any other factors. Human life is
always worth protecting, but assisted suicide undermines that truth.
Assisted suicide is particularly scrutinized by disability activists. Much of the justification
behind assisted suicide has ableist elements and therefore harms the entire disabled
community. Not Dead Yet is a grassroots disability rights that opposes assisted suicide and
euthanasia. They succinctly explain the dangers of including assisted suicide as a medical
treatment option for people who are seriously ill or disabled.
First and foremost, assisted suicide perpetuates misconceptions about having disabilities. Most
people who advocate for the legalization of assisted suicide emphasize unbearable pain as the
main reason for its use. However, according to Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act Annual Reports,
lethal prescriptions were issued for very different reasons: 91% for loss of autonomy, 89% for
decreased ability to engage in activities, 81% for loss of dignity, 50% for loss of control of bodily
functions, and 40% for feelings of being a burden. That list describes some of the challenges
that people with disabilities face on a regular basis. If they are valid reasons to offer lethal
prescriptions to patients, then the implication is that all people with disabilities do not have lives
worth living because they face those same challenges.
We live in a society that celebrates and regularly expects physical ability. The structures around
us are designed for a specific skill set, and people with disabilities frequently find those
structures difficult to navigate. Our designs, from the entrances of buildings to the layout of
bathrooms to the construction of most clothing, are not inclusive to everyone. As such, it is
unsurprising that when someone who was previously able-bodied finds themselves in a situation
where they are not free to navigate the world in their independent and comfortable way, they
view this as a loss of dignity. When patients are offered assisted suicide because of challenges
such as the loss of control of bodily functions, it indicates that anyone with incontinence,
spasms, or other losses of bodily function is considered to similarly lack dignity.
Not all patients are offered legally assisted suicide. As Not Dead Yet states, “some people get
suicide prevention while others get suicide assistance, and the difference between the two
groups is the health status of the individual, leading to a two-tiered system that results in death
to the socially devalued group. This is blatant discrimination.”
The second danger inherent to assisted suicide is the role of doctors as gatekeepers. While
anyone could request assisted suicide, not everyone will receive it. That decision is made by
physicians, requiring them to predict if a patient will die within six months, and whether the
request for death is made with a rational and clear mind or from a position of impaired
judgement. Such evaluations are difficult to make and often inaccurate. As such, those who do
not fit the criteria for assisted suicide are still sometimes permitted to proceed with their request
for death, because the evaluation system makes mistakes.