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Report Outlines ‘Dangers, Harms’ Assisted Suicide Laws Pose to Disabled

In a file photo, a demonstrator against “assisted dying” stands in protest. (Photo: Catholic News Service)

Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The National Council on Disability said in a new study that “the dangers and harms” physician-assisted suicide laws present to people with disabilities “appear to be as significant today” as they were in 1997 and 2005, when the council earlier analyzed the harms of such laws.

“NCD’s concerns, then and now, 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,” the council said in an executive summary of its Oct. 9 report.

It added, “No safeguards have ever been enacted or proposed that can prevent this outcome.”

In an Oct. 15 statement, the chairmen of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ pro-life and domestic policy committees praised the National Council on Disabilities “for its critical research and report exposing serious risks of abuse, coercion and discrimination posed by assisted suicide laws, specifically for people with disabilities.”

“Every suicide is a human tragedy, regardless of the age, incapacity, or social/economic status of the individual,” the bishops said. “The legalization of doctor-assisted suicide separates people into two groups: those whose lives we want to protect and those whose deaths we encourage. This is completely unjust and seriously undermines equal protection under the law.”

The joint statement was issued by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas, who is chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, and Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

“The human rights and intrinsic worth of a person do not change with the onset of age, illness or disability,” they said, quoting Pope Francis: “True compassion does not marginalize anyone, nor does it humiliate and exclude – much less considers the disappearance of a person as a good thing.”

Naumann and Dewane added: “We must do what we can to uphold the dignity of life, cherish the lives of all human beings, and work to prevent all suicides. We urge state and federal governments, health care providers, and associations to heed this report’s warnings and recommendations, especially its opposition to assisted suicide laws.”

Currently eight states have legalized assisted suicide: Oregon, 1994, Washington, 2008; Vermont, 2013; California, 2015; Colorado, 2016; Hawaii, 2018; New Jersey, 2018; and Maine, 2019. The District of Columbia legalized it in 2016. In Montana, the state Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that current Montana law allows a physician to aid the suicide of terminally ill patient.

In January, the New York Legislature will consider the Medical Aid in Dying Act, which would reverse that state’s long-standing ban on doctor-assisted suicide.

The National Council on Disability is an independent federal agency that makes recommendations to the president and Congress “to enhance the quality of life for all Americans with disabilities and their families.”

Its Oct. 9 report is part of a series of reports on bioethics and people with disabilities that was developed through an agreement with the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund.

The council was an early opponent of the legalization of assisted suicide.

In its report, the council said proponents of assisted suicide “have been slow to recognize how crucial LTSS (long-term services and supports) can be, with home and community-based services … providing many people with options that make longer lives far more appealing, even when they have been diagnosed (or misdiagnosed) as having a terminal illness.”

“Most assisted suicide laws reference ‘dignity,’” it said. “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.”

It added, “Many hold the attitude that a person with a disability may be better off dead than alive.”

“Misperceptions and misunderstandings” about the developmentally and physically disabled “are rooted in disability prejudice,” the report said, “and in the context of assisted suicide laws and policies, they create a deadly mix that poses multifaceted risks and dangers to people with disabilities as well as people in other vulnerable constituencies.”

The report, titled “The Danger of Assisted Suicide Laws,” includes several policy recommendations including urging states to not legalize any form of assisted suicide or active euthanasia. Instead, it said, states should promote palliative care “can provide a legal solution to significantly painful or uncomfortable deaths that do not endanger others in the way that assisted suicide laws do.”

Among the council report’s recommendations for Congress is to pass a resolution expressing the sense of the body “that assisted suicide puts everyone, particularly people with disabilities, at risk of deadly harm.” It also said Congress should amend the Social Security Act to remove Medicaid’s “statutory bias for institutional long-term care rather than long-term services and supports (LTSS) provided for people living in the community.”