News Analysis: Doctor-Assisted Suicide Debate Heats Up

The legalization of physician-assisted suicide is being considered in a handful of states as advocates with disabilities on both sides of the issue fight to be heard. Oregon and Washington have already approved right-to-die laws, and Montana’s Supreme Court made it legal in 2009. Voters in Massachusetts narrowly defeated an assisted suicide ballot measure last November. During the latest legislative cycle, Connecticut and Kansas failed to get bills out of committee. In February, New Jersey’s Death with Dignity Act passed out of committee on a 7 to 2 vote. Hawaii has a bill pending, and in the latest victory for proponents of assisted suicide, the Vermont House, on April 30, gave preliminary approval by a vote of 80-57 to a bill that had gone down to defeat six years earlier.

Connecticut resident Cathy Ludlum, 50, who has spinal muscular atrophy, opposes physician-assisted suicide. She says people with disabilities are already at risk. “I have had to fight with medical practitioners who were well-meaning but did not feel like I had a life that was as good as or as worth saving as theirs,” she says.

Ludlum says pain control is vital, and those who are in unbearable pain can use terminal sedation, where a person is kept in an unconscious state until death occurs. She believes doctors aren’t trained to understand the difference between life with a disability and the idea of suffering. She says doctors work hard to alleviate suffering but often overlook other options unique to each situation. She encourages people to talk with their doctor about end-of-life concerns.

In Oregon and Washington, those seeking assistance in dying must have a terminal diagnosis — less than six months to live. Ludlum says she has been “terminal” much of her life and has fought to get where she is today. “I want to continue having the right to say I want full treatment and I want to live.” She adds many terminal diagnoses are guesses and can be off by several months. She is concerned about abuse because witnesses aren’t required to attend deaths and abuse can’t be reported because no reporting mechanism exists. Once the medication is in the house, she says, things can happen that no outside party would know about.

Montana advocate Dustin Hankinson believes anyone with a terminal illness should have access to aid in dying. He doesn’t see it as killing oneself. “It’s an act of peaceful choice for people to make for themselves instead of being at the mercy of the medical profession,” Hankinson says.

He agrees terminal sedation is an appropriate option, but it shouldn’t be the only one. “The options need to be wider,” he says, and adds that when a patient’s end-of-life options become limited, it takes control out of their hands.

Hankinson, 38, has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a disease he says will one day cause his death. Traditionally doctors use the six-month terminal diagnosis, but he wants to see doctors judge case-by-case based on the person’s mental capacity and how imminent their death may be. He says this will eliminate guesswork and he wants the person to have the power of decision-making instead of the doctor. “We want to prevent the exact situations that the opponents to the laws fear,” he says.

Ludlum wants people with disabilities to see themselves as valuable members of society. “If the only way people can feel like they can be in charge of their lives is by ending it,” she says, “that says something terrible about how we support people with disabilities.”

Hankinson says opponents falsely believe aid-in-dying advocates want everybody to use this option. “What we’re advocating is the ultimate choice to decide the treatments we want and don’t want, and the experience we want to have when we leave this world.

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