Assisted Suicide and the Rights of the Disabled

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In a few weeks, the Supreme Court hears a case on Oregon's assisted-suicide law, which disability-rights activists are arguing against. Commentator Lennard Davis, a professor of disability studies, is concerned that lobbying against assisted suicide might not really be in the best interests of the disabled.


That assisted-suicide law in Oregon is the subject of one of the first cases the Supreme Court will hear in the coming term. It's called Gonzales vs. Oregon. Several disability rights groups have filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, arguing against Oregon's assisted-suicide law. They say that allowing assisted suicide wrongly suggests that the lives of disabled people are not valuable, and they say the law might encourage disabled people to end their lives. In many instances in recent years, disability rights activists have made similar arguments. Commentator Leonard Davis is a professor of disability studies, and he says that lobbying against assisted suicide might not really be in the best interests of the disabled.


The political tussle around Gonzales vs. Oregon has made some strange bedfellows for disability rights activists. They're sharing a king-size mattress with right-to-lifers, religious groups and conservatives. People with disabilities have fought for their own autonomy, and they've opposed the puny medical view of their own parents. So it's strange that they're opposed to people who don't want relentless medical treatment. And it's stranger still that disability organizations are making an alliance with right-to-life groups and the conservative right, as they did in the Terri Schiavo debacle.

Disability proponents feel that assisted suicide is a risky business, and the biggest risk is for people with disabilities, especially vulnerable and depressed ones, who may be pressured by friends, family and caregivers to end their lives. The big problem is that disability activists and scholars have come to see physician-assisted suicide as an assault on the disabled. The fundamental error they've made is that they've equated disability with dying.

This mistake is compounded when disability proponents point out that the very people who are requesting physician-assisted suicide do so, according to Oregon's own statistics, because they fear losing control, becoming helpless, impaired and dependent. According to this account, such patients fear becoming disabled and are acting in ablest ways, even toward themselves. In effect, they'd prefer death to disability.

But the Oregon law is not about chronically ill people or people with disabilities. It's specifically limited to patients with six months or less to live. Only by a serious misunderstanding could such folks be called disabled. Those same Oregon statistics show, in fact, that the average person requesting a lethal overdose is a male cancer patient, 66 years old, white, college-educated and middle-class. If that's the kind of person affected, it's hard to argue that the law discriminates against people with disabilities.

If the dying person wants control over his or her demise, why should disabled people tell them to do otherwise? When people first become disabled, they often feel helpless and out of control. But as they achieve a consciousness of the history, culture and politics of disability, they begin to get a sense of control. That control has grown through legislation that provides accommodation, independent living and barrier-free access.

Disability studies in activism is all about empowerment and control. So when terminally ill people want to control their own death, they aren't doing anything radically different from what people with disabilities want to do. In fact, there is a commonality of purpose between people with disabilities and people who seek physician-assisted suicide. What disability activists seek the most is control over their own lives. Why would they want to deny that to someone who is terminally ill in Oregon?

BLOCK: Leonard Davis teaches disability studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

MICHELE NORRIS (Host): This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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