Assisted Suicide Is No Choice At All

Assisted Suicide Is No Choice At All
AP Photo/Russell Contreras, File

Assisted suicide laws in the United States have all passed based on the assumption that a terminally ill person has less than six months to live. But the experience of many diagnosed with terminal illnesses force us to ask: What if this assumption is wrong? 

The reality is that, when tasked with predicting a patient’s demise, often even the best-trained professionals can do little more than roll the dice. On top of that, insurance companies can save big money by steering patients toward death instead of providing the means to keep them alive. Because of these grave concerns, assisted suicide laws pose far too significant a risk. 

Jeanette Hall, who lives in Oregon, voted for the ballot measure that made assisted suicide legal in her state. A few years later, in 2000, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given six months to live — qualifying her for assisted suicide. That left Hall with two options: Get chemotherapy and attempt to fight the cancer or take lethal drugs to end her life. “I was calling it over,” Hall said later. “I wasn’t going to do chemo. When I heard what might take place in radiation … I wasn’t going to do it. I looked for the easy way out.” But Hall’s physician encouraged her to fight her illness. 

Seventeen years later, Hall advocates against the practice she initially preferred. “I am so happy to be alive!” Hall told the media. “If my doctor had believed in assisted suicide, I would be dead.”

Another Oregon woman, Barbara Wagner, pursued a life-extending therapy prescribed by her doctor after learning that her lung cancer had returned. She received a crushing rejection letter from her insurance company. The company refused to cover the expensive drug that would have prolonged her life and offered to cover lethal drugs instead. “It was horrible,” Wagner said. “I got a letter in the mail that basically said if you want to take the pills, we will help you get that from the doctor and we will stand there and watch you die. But we won't give you the medication to live.” 

At age 29, Stephanie Packer was diagnosed with scleroderma and was told that she only had three years left. Now 34, she’s still with us, no thanks to her insurance company. After California legalized assisted suicide in 2015, Packer was informed by her insurance company that it would not cover the prescribed chemotherapy, but would cover the cost of drugs that would end her life for a mere $1.20 co-pay. 

These stories illustrate why an increasing number of states are unwilling to gamble on patients’ lives. At present, only a handful of states have legalized assisted suicide. Thankfully, the practice remains illegal in 44 states. And proposals to legalize it have failed over 200 times, as legislators and the public become more aware of the danger it poses.

The leading backers of assisted suicide laws often advocate for “death with dignity” without revealing the dark underside of the bargain, namely that these laws saddle doctors with an impossible task and give insurance companies the legal means to deny treatment. This dangerous precedent should be rejected. No amount of slick marketing or emotional appeals can erase the stark truth: There is no dignity in forcing people to die.

Lawrence Carter-Long is Director of Communications for Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund.

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