(Not Dead Yet editor’s note: The following is a revised version of an op-ed I drafted in response to the front page story published in the New York Times on February 8. ‘Aid in Dying’ Movement Takes Hold in Some States was written by reporter Erick Eckholm. We’ve been informed that that the Times isn’t considering any op-eds in response to this article.)
I was disappointed but not surprised when I discovered that the Times published a front page article on February 8 promoting and praising assisted suicide advocates and their goals. At first, I was tempted to think it was ghost-written by the communications staff at Compassion and Choices, the assisted suicide advocacy group that featured prominently in the article. After a little research, it seems more probable that the promotional piece pretending to be journalism is the fault of reporter Erik Eckholm and the editors who felt the article represented real journalism.
Eckholm relied almost entirely on two sources for his article – Barbara Coombs Lee of Compassion and Choices and Robert Mitton, a 58-year-old man who started a blog late last year talking about his impending death due to a serious heart condition – and his wish to be able to kill himself when he decides it’s not worth it to live any more. Although it’s glossed over in Eckholm’s article, Mitton’s shaky finances weigh heavily on his mind and in how long he thinks he’ll be able to afford to stick around. His blog contains a paypal button for people to contribute so that he can meet expenses for a few more months….
Eckholm’s article discussed the hugely significant impact of the omission of the word “suicide” on Gallup poll results, yielding much higher levels of support. What the poll documents, of course, is the effectiveness of using fuzzy euphemisms when promoting a political agenda. Unfortunately, the article’s subsequent discussion suggests that the growing success of the term “aid in dying” rests on its accuracy rather than its soft fuzzy distance from reality….
But it turns out that “aid in dying” may already be on the way to obsolescence. Assisted suicide advocates have put themselves in a bind by insisting “aid in dying” refers to assisting the suicides of people whose deaths are imminent. That means new terminology is needed for the next step.
By the “next step” I mean broader eligibility in terms of who gets a “hastened” death. If you read the quotes from Ms. Coombs Lee in Eckholm’s article carefully you’ll find that when talking about Compassion and Choices’ VSED – voluntarily stopping eating and drinking – program, she doesn’t mention anything about death being imminent to qualify. In fact, the first highly publicized instance of their program involved an elderly couple ending their lives together this way, when neither was imminently terminal. We’ve even heard that some people with spinal cord injury have gotten hospice assistance to die this way, although it’s unknown if Compassion and Choices was involved.
Saturday’s article also failed to take note that right now legislators in New Hampshire have introduced HB 1325, a bill that would legalize assisted suicide for the “terminally ill,” incredibly broadly defined as “an incurable and irreversible condition, for the end stage for which there is no known treatment which will alter its course to death, and which, in the opinion of the attending physician and consulting physician competent in that disease category, will result in premature death.”
That definition makes anyone with a significant chronic illness or disability “eligible” under this proposed statute, no matter how far off their “premature death” may be. Diabetes, spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis – to name a few – can all shorten your life expectancy.
Obviously, assisted suicide advocates can’t refer to VSED and the NH bill as “aid in dying” if they stay true to their previous assertions about their rationale for the term. So what’s next? “Death with dignity” is. It’s already part of the language of many of the bills. And the term is even farther removed from the reality of helping a human being kill him or her self.
It’s not just hypothetical. Last month, the website governing.com published an article by David Levine promoting the use of “death with dignity” over any other term in pushing assisted suicide legislation. The article has been featured and lauded on Compassion and Choices’ Facebook page.
More and more, it looks like there’s a lot more enthusiasm for old, ill and disabled people having “death with dignity” (assisted suicide) available. Meanwhile, due to stagnant or shrinking supports through the social safety net, it’s getting harder to live – with or without dignity – if you’re old, ill and disabled.
Saturday’s article got enthusiastic responses from people supportive of Robert Mitton’s plan to commit suicide but didn’t drive many people to his blog – at least people who left comments. Meanwhile, at last report, he’s received a whole 45 dollars in donations. Like a lot of other disability activists, I suspect that’s pretty representative of society’s relative support, enthusiasm and commitment to helping us live compared to the enthusiasm to “compassionately” offer us “death with dignity.”
To read the entire article, click here.
For information about the Disability Rights Leadership Institute on Bioethics April 25 and 26 in Arlington VA, click here.