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Disabilities group has 'Second Thoughts' on assisted suicide

Second Thoughts director John Kelly Courtesy photo

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BOSTON -- A group of Massachusetts residents with disabilities opposing legalized assisted suicide are asking Massachusetts voters to have "second thoughts" when they vote on Question 2 in November.

Second Thoughts: People with Disabilities Opposing the Legalization of Assisted Suicide (www.second-thoughts.org) is a Boston based steering committee of disabled people from Massachusetts formed in 2011 to educate and organize the Massachusetts disability community to respond to the ballot initiative. The name "Second Thoughts" emphasizes that rather than offering individual choice, assisted suicide laws create a potentially discriminatory and dangerous practice.

According to the group's website, Second Thoughts seeks to move the context of the assisted suicide debate beyond simplified political divisions, "between conservative 'right to life' and religious groups on one side, and 'liberals' who support individual choice on the other."

Second Thoughts says it encourages voters "to look at assisted suicide in the real world" which it says is one "where insurance companies and other organizations try to limit spending on health care"; "where disabled people face discrimination through architectural barriers and unemployment while lacking in-home services to enable them to integrate into communities"; "where some people think it might be better to be dead than disabled"; and "where abuse and financial exploitation of elders and people with disabilities is at unacceptably high levels."

John Kelly, director, said the idea of providing "dignity" through death holds dangerous implications for society, and particularly for people with disabilities.

"It is dangerous for people who are already disadvantaged in terms of getting adequate medical care and full social respect. It is very dangerous for a society with such great levels of inequality," he said.

Kelly described the idea of someone restoring their dignity through death as holding a connotation directly opposed to living with a disability.

"This word 'dignity,' which is never defined, we know that it generally means someone who is autonomous in their self-care, someone who does not need someone else to care for them," he said.

"When society makes a law based on one group of people's notion of dignity it will discriminate against people in that society whose lives look like the lives that are being rejected under the bill."

Kelly said confusion in the mind of many people about the difference between terminal and disabled people put the disabled in the line of fire with regard to assisted suicide laws. He said close to half of the people assisted in ending their own lives by Dr. Jack Kevorkian were actually not terminal but disabled.

"In the public mind being disabled and being terminal seem to run together, so we are so often already considered terminal that it will also put pressure on us," he said.

He said proponents of the bill use the word "dignity" as a euphemism for the idea that it is better to be dead than disabled.

"That is what the word 'dignity' means here. 'Dignity' means, for the proponents, autonomy and the ability to self-care. When we have thousands of people who are disqualified under that term 'dignity,' how could we not see an impact on that group from passing a law like this?" he asked.

Kelly said the wording in the bill makes it appear to the betterment of people facing suffering, but would create a different reality if it became the law.

"The law sounds good in a fairy-tale world of full equality and everyone's ability to make choices," he said.

Kelly pointed to the structural specifics of the bill as a danger to people facing terminal illnesses, people with disabilities and society as a whole.

"There are inadequate safeguards. They are hollow," he said.

He cited the example that no mental health evaluation is required under the bill. He said this could give suicidal patients the ability to pursue the goal of killing themselves within the healthcare system because if a doctor refuses to prescribe patient life-ending treatments "they could always go doctor shopping and find another doctor."

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