Electric EDGE
Web Edition of
The Ragged Edge
Jan/Feb 1998

Electric Edge


Who do we include?
By Mary Jane Owen
A member of Not Dead Yet remarked, "When you get involved in national politics, sometimes you find yourself associating with strange bedfellows -- ones you hadn't known would support your issues. But probably we should be thankful for all the support we can get."

When I first came to Washington, DC in 1979 fresh from the advocacy front of the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, I was looking for my "moral twins." I anticipated working with people who agreed with me on all issues which were important to me. I was a purist; I was not a very successful bridge-builder in pushing forward the issues of access and accommodation.

And then I saw the two political extremes in the House of Representatives, Paul Simon (D.- IL) and Barry Goldwater (R.- AZ.) meet, greet and treat each other with great courtesy and respect. And slowly I learned the most effective campaigns do not depend on finding a few clones but of clearly identifying the core issues upon which to build a broader political campaign. I recall some early (and politically naive) efforts to move the Americans with Disabilities Act through Congress before we understood that this was not a liberal/conservative issue: Our "rights" could be defined so that they bridged party affiliations.

Disability advocates who fear the negative stereotypes which are reinforced through the rhetoric of those who advocate physician-assisted suicide, whether members of Not Dead Yet or not, may have an unexpected friend in the U. S. House of Representatives. Rep. Henry Hyde (R.-IL), in a July letter to Thomas A. Constantine, Administrator of the U.S. Dept. of Justice's Drug Enforcement Administration, asked "whether delivering, distributing, dispensing, prescribing, filling a prescription, or administering a controlled substance with the deliberate intent of assisting in a suicide would violate the Controlled Substances Act"

Hyde alluded in his letter to the Oregon physician-assisted suicide act, upheld by Oregon voters in November by a 20 percent margin. Under the Act, the DEA is empowered to revoke the registration of physicians who dispense such drugs without a "legitimate medical purpose." That same day, Constantine replied that the DEA did believe that "delivering, distributing, dispensing or prescribing a controlled substance with the deliberate intent of assisting in a suicide would not be . . . a legitimate medical purpose."

This determination may not please all disability advocates, many of whom feel that the DEA's interpretation of "legitimate medical purpose" has been used in the past to limit the amount of pain-killers that people in extreme pain are allowed. However, many also feel the DEA's response is the only legally responsible answer.

The Oregon law says doctors can prescribe -- and pharmacists can dispense -- lethal overdoses of drugs for patients believed to have less than six months to live. It covers only Oregon residents, but its vague definition of "resident" suggests that the drugs and instructions for using them to commit suicide can find their way across state lines or be given to others to use. This has profound implications, and would seem to justify the DEA's interpretation.

Participants at last January's Not Dead Yet rally at the foot of the Supreme Court steps heard Dr. C. Everett Koop, former surgeon general, an abortion opponent who had years ago warned of the dangers of smoking, now asserting that allowing medical professionals to move from healing to killing was a much graver threat than tobacco. And advocate after advocate took the microphone to condemn the policy along with him.

Tom Martin, director of the Southern Maryland Center for Independent Living and activist with Not Dead Yet, says "The battle over physician-assisted suicide will continue to rage as long as those of us with disabilities refuse to allow others to make negative judgments about the value of our lives. We are disabled and we are proud!"

So just who do we include in our campaign?

Mary Jane Owen, involved in the disability rights movement since 1972, was a CORE (Committee on Racial Equality) organizer in high school. She writes on equity issues and heroes who are ignored.


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