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Federal study finds nation's assisted suicide laws rife with dangers to people with disabilities

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

WASHINGTON – Today, the National Council on Disability (NCD) released the findings of a federal examination of the country’s assisted suicide laws and their effect on people with disabilities, finding the laws’ safeguards are ineffective and oversight of abuses and mistakes is absent.

Currently, eight states and the District of Columbia have passed assisted suicide laws that make it legal for doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to patients diagnosed with terminal illness and with a prognosis of 6 months or less to live, if certain procedural steps are followed.

Despite the belief that pain relief is the primary motivation for seeking assisted suicide, in Assisted Suicide Laws and their Danger to People with Disabilities, NCD found that the most prevalent reasons offered by someone requesting assisted suicide are directly related to unmet service and support needs, which NCD urges policy makers respond to through legislative changes and funding.

“Assisted suicide laws are premised on the notion of additional choice for people at the end of their lives, however in practice, they often remove choices when the low-cost option is ending one’s life versus providing treatments to lengthen it or services and supports to improve it,” said NCD Chairman Neil Romano.

Closely examining the experience in Oregon, where the practice has been legal for 20 years, NCD found that the list of conditions eligible for assisted suicide has expanded considerably over time, including many disabilities that, when properly treated, do not result in death, including arthritis, diabetes, and kidney failure.

Assisted Suicide Laws and their Danger to People with Disabilities also notes suicide contagion in states where assisted suicide is legal; as well as a loosening of existing safeguards both in states with legalized assisted suicide and states considering bills to legalize.

In the report, NCD details limitations of purported safeguards of assisted suicide laws, finding:

  • Insurers have denied expensive, life-sustaining medical treatment, but offered to subsidize lethal drugs, potentially leading patients to hasten their own deaths;
  • Misdiagnoses of terminal disease can cause frightened patients to hasten their deaths;
  • Though fear and depression often drive requests for assisted suicide, referral for psychological evaluation is extremely rare prior to doctors writing lethal prescriptions;
  • Financial and emotional pressures can distort patient choice;
  • Patients may “doctor shop” limitlessly to find a physician who will obtain a colleague’s concurrence and prescribe a lethal dose

“As someone who has battled cancer and been given weeks to live and am still thriving years later, I know firsthand that well-intending doctors are often wrong,” said Mr. Romano. “If assisted suicide is legal, lives will be lost due to mistakes, abuse, lack of information, or a lack of better options; no current or proposed safeguards can change that.”

NCD concludes its research with recommendations, including highlighting the need for:

  • Federal research on disability-related risk factors in suicide prevention, as well as on people with disabilities who request assisted suicide and euthanasia;
  • Federal regulation requiring non-discrimination in suicide prevention services; and
  • Greater federal investment in long-term services and supports.

About NCD’s Bioethics and Disability Series

NCD’s bioethics and disability report series focuses on how historical and current devaluation of the lives of people with disabilities by the medical community, researchers, and health economists perpetuates unequal access to medical care, including life-saving care. NCD will release its reports in the series on the following schedule:

September 25 – Organ Transplant Discrimination Against People with Disabilities

October 9 – The Danger of Assisted Suicide Laws

October 23 – Genetic Testing and the Rush to Perfection

November 6 – Quality-Adjusted Life Years and the Devaluation of Life with a Disability

November 20 – Medical Futility and Disability Bias

About the National Council on Disability

First established as an advisory council within the Department of Education in 1978, NCD became an independent federal agency in 1984. In 1986, NCD recommended enactment of an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and drafted the first version of the bill which was introduced in the House and Senate in 1988. Since enactment of the ADA in 1990, NCD has continued to play a leading role in crafting disability policy, and advising the President, Congress and other federal agencies on disability policies, programs, and practices.



An official website of the National Council on Disability