"The State's interest here goes beyond protecting the vulnerable from coercion; it extends to protecting disabled and terminally ill people from prejudice, negative and inaccurate stereotypes, and 'societal indifference.' ... [T]he lives of terminally ill, disabled and elderly people must be no less valued than the lives of the young and healthy ... [A] seriously disabled person's suicidal impulses should be interpreted and treated the same way as anyone else's. ...
-- U.S. Supreme Court, June 26, 1997.Not Dead Yet's friend-of-the-court brief, filed in the assisted suicide cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in June, had a clear influence on the Supreme Court justices. The Court ruled there is no constitutional right to assistance in suicide, upholding laws in New York and Washington state. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, writing the the Court's majority opinion, noted "the real risk of subtle coercion and undue influence in end-of life situations" for people "whose autonomy and well-being are already compromised by ... membership in a stigmatized social group." Bolstering the opinion is a citation of a section of the Not Dead Yet-ADAPT brief, which argued that "adequate safeguards" could not be adopted to protect people with disabilities and insisted that "any purported limitation to terminally ill" people could not protect physically disabled people.
Virtually no news account of the ruling mentioned the Not Dead Yet brief. Typically mentioned in news reports were the "American Medical Association, American Hospital Association and U.S. Catholic Conference." as groups who'd filed briefs supporting a ban on the practice.
Although Not Dead Yet members say they're pleased with the ruling, they note that the battle now will be fought state by state as right-to-die groups push their legal agendas in a public climate of so little understanding of life with a disability that conditions such as multiple sclerosis or quadriplegia like Christopher Reeve's continue to be viewed as a "fate worse than death."
Disabled women & suicide:
Why are women dying to be free but men aren't? Because men have women to care for them. But women lose their family and social supports once they are categorized as non-breeders and are no longer a source of nurturance. They are discarded as socially useless and wind up in an earthbound limbo.
There is no such state as "terminal illness," only the status of life with a disability. But when a woman becomes disabled, she may be influenced to call herself "terminally ill" to justify suicidality. Once disabled, her daily life becomes medicalized, isolated and impoverished. The solutions offered to ease her predicament are medical treatment, cures -- and if those don't work, death.
When feminists contend that assisted suicide is a choice and a private matter, they are harboring a paternalistic notion of privacy. All women and girls face great dangers in private, which feminists are all too familiar with. Private family matters conceal incest, domestic violence, and female genital mutilation.
The sources of disabled women's difficulties, feminists should realize, almost always stem from isolation and poverty.
Disabled women who want to die are virtually always depressed and in despair. The majority have experienced some sort of violence, be it emotional, physical, sexual, or financial. This violence may also take the form of neglect. They are isolated from their families and their community. They are isolated from the essential treatment and resources they need.
The woman's community has abandoned these women, too. The political, social, and economic predicament of disabled women has been excluded from the feminist platform time and time again. By supporting the availability of assisted suicide, feminists are unwittingly sacrificing the protection of all women's lives.
There are two feminist arguments for assisted suicide. Both arguments exhibit the kind of "medical model" thinking that in other contexts feminists abhor.
One argument insists that the so-called "suffering" of people with disabilities or health problems places a "burden" upon unpaid female family members -- and that "ending" that "suffering" will lift the "burden". The other line of reasoning insists that legalizing assisted suicide will give women more power to control their own lives.
But the availability of assisted suicide supported by feminist organizations such as the National Organization for Women (and my friends over at the Los-Angeles based Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, who supported the 2 assisted-suicide cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court this past summer) will not free women from the caregiver role, nor will assisted suicide extend a woman's autonomy and privacy in health care decision-making.
"Medical model" thinking defines women's problems as individual problems to be solved by medical treatment and cures. Small breasts get medically augmented, women's moods get medicated, and birth gets technology. Medical model proponents contend that a disabled person's suffering arises from physical pain, and that death is the answer to pain, isolation, and oppression.
But the minority model -- which feminism is founded on -- suggests that the sources of most difficulties faced by minority group members are in the social and political environments: a disabled person's suffering has more to do with depression, political oppression, and social isolation than any medical condition. Policy change is the answer -- but not the type of change advocated by proponents of assisted suicide.
Feminists have for decades been fighting for safe and affordable child care. Similarly, feminist activists should be joining disabled and senior activists in our political efforts. These efforts are to shift federal and state dollars away from institutions to long-term in-home assistance, provided by semi-professionals who provide personal services for extensively disabled individuals.
Every individual does have a right to control her own life. But in practice, the physician assisted suicide option has the potential of becoming a practice similar to the way sterilization has been performed on poor Black and Latina women after childbirth, who have been asked to sign a consent form for tubal ligation while they were in the throes of labor. Some disabled people are reporting being pressured to sign "do not resuscitate" (DNR) orders, directing physicians to withhold measures such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation or assistive ventilation.
Death is an odd liberation from depression, isolation, powerlessness, violence, and sexism. Feminist activists need to reject the eugenic thinking they've embraced. If they do not, I fear that the very women they regard as exploited will be those whose death warrants they will be co-signing under the banner of "choice."
Barbara Waxman Fiduccia writes frequently about issues of reproductive rights. A longer version of this article appeared recently in a Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago newsletter.
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