Disability rights groups instrumental in failure of Massachusetts Death with Dignity measure

hospital bed and medical equipment

In a surprise victory for a coalition of disability rights activists, Massachusetts voters on Election Night rejected Question 2, an initiative that would have made Massachusetts the third state nationwide to legalize physician-assisted suicide.

Ballot Initiative: Assisted Suicide or Death with Dignity?

The initiative would have allowed terminally ill adults, defined as those with six months or less to live, to receive and self-administer a prescription for life-ending medication. After polling as high as 68 percent during the campaign season, voters narrowly rejected the measure by a 51 to 49 percent margin.

In a campaign that separated disability activists from their regular progressive allies, a coalition of disability rights groups formed a group called Second Thoughts in December 2011 to oppose the measure. Along with a group of conservative-leaning religious groups and some medical associations, Second Thought helped opponents of the initiative outspend supporters by a margin of five to one.

“We changed the nature of the campaign,” said John Kelly, director of Second Thoughts, in a news release. “This is the first assisted suicide campaign in which the disability rights perspective has reached so many people.”

Question 2 was modeled after similar Death with Dignity laws in Oregon, approved by voters in 1994, and in Washington State, approved by voters in 2008. These laws require that patients seeking life-ending medication go through a 15-day waiting period, that two doctors verify that the terminally ill patient is mentally competent, and the doctors provide information on other forms of end-of-life care.

Led by Not Dead Yet, many major disability rights groups have long opposed Death with Dignity measures.

As these groups see it, most patients seeking life-ending medication do so because they have been denied proper services. According to Second Thoughts, the top five reasons Oregon doctors report patients requesting assisted suicide are all related to quality of life issues, such as a ”loss of autonomy,” a “loss of dignity,” a”loss of control of bodily functions,” “feelings of being a burden,” and that they are “less able to engage in activities.”

As a result, Death with Dignity initiatives thus incentive doctors to withhold proper end-of-life treatment, especially as hospitals look to slow ever-rising health care costs.

“The disability community bases its opposition on the dangers to people with disabilities and the devaluation of disabled peoples’ lives that result from assisted suicide,” wrote the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund in an extensive report outlining its opposition to assisted suicide laws. “Further, this opposition stems from the secrecy in which assisted suicide operates today, in states where it is legal; the lack of robust oversight and the absence of investigation of abuse; the reality of who uses it; the dangers of legalization to further erode the quality of the U.S. health care system; and its potential for other significant harms.”

Proponents of these measures, such as the Death With Dignity National Center, believe that the laws implicate fundamental liberty interests by allowing terminally patients the choice to determine how to end their lives. For these activists, the laws allow a more compassionate option for people who do not want to die by traditional means.

“The critics are worrying about a shift to mass suicide inspired by heartless doctors and families pressuring dying patients to end it,” bioethicist Art Caplan wrote in a recent widely circulated column. “That has simply not happened in Oregon or Washington. There is no persuasive evidence that the dying are being rushed, duped or bullied to die by anyone.

The interesting thing is that many people find it more empowering to have the ability to end their lives if they want to do so. Many say the ability to choose gives them the strength not to do so.”

When the Supreme Court upheld the Oregon’s Death with Dignity law in 2006, in Gonzalez v. Oregon, 11 disability rights groups filed an amicus brief in opposition, including ADAPT, TASH and the National Council on Independent Living.

A column from the popular blog Bad Cripple reacting to the vote on Question 2 can be read here.

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