With the stroke of a pen, a New Mexico judge unraveled some of the most basic protections people in our state have when facing serious illness or disability.
This week, Judge Nan G. Nash of the Second District Court in Albuquerque ruled that the health care system and those entrusted to deliver medical care cannot be prosecuted for prescribing a lethal prescription overdose for the purposes of assisting in the suicide of someone with serious disease or disability.
This ruling tears away at the fabric of what those of us in the disability rights movement have been working to improve: a health care system free to deal with each individual uniquely rather than as a line-item on an accounting ledger, the elimination of abuse and coercion by those seeking to profit or take advantage of someone during a difficult time, and the illusion that individuals with a severe illness or disability should be measured by a flawed societal definition of quality of life.
Nash’s ruling codifies the idea that some lives are not worth living and they should have the option, if not the duty, to “choose” a premature death via a doctor’s prescription pad.
This turn of events in states like New Mexico and Oregon is a frightening prospect for persons living with a disability. If the practice of assisted suicide becomes normalized, what real choice is there for those of us who can cost the most to care for, and need assistance by equipment, specialized vehicles and personal aides to perform daily tasks?
Such was the choice given in the now infamous case of Barbara Wagner in Oregon.
Oregon’s assisted suicide law passed in 1999 and has been widely scrutinized by those in the medical community, disability rights advocates and ethicists who have noted many examples of unreported problems and complications with the law, generally only brought to light through investigative reporting or personal testimonies.
Wagner was an Oregon retiree diagnosed with lung cancer. During the course of her treatment, her physician recommended particular chemotherapy, but within weeks, she received a notice from her insurer that they would not cover the life-saving treatment. However, they would pay for assisted suicide.
Some may believe that an aging grandmother who contracted lung cancer and is in an advanced stage has the obligation, for the good of the herd, to request a lethal prescription and go quietly into the night. We foresee very dangerous social ramifications, as disability and disease are further quantified.
As we work towards world-class health care and access for all, the legalization of assisted suicide is a move toward health care quality and access for only the select.
Further, legalization of assisted suicide does not account for the pressures or coercion from family members or others. While we may think coercion or pressure to die would never happen in our family or acquaintance circle, that cannot be said of every family, and unfortunately, statistics on elder abuse show that ulterior motives can often arise.
In fact, the laws that apply in Oregon and now New Mexico only say that a person must be of a sound mental state when the lethal dose is prescribed. There is no safeguard for an individual’s mental state when the prescription is administered or ingested.
The fact is, even those individuals facing the very end of life have multiple options offered by palliative and hospice care that make assisted suicide unnecessary, such as palliative sedation, where sufficient medication can be provided to render the patient unconscious, if necessary, until he or she passes peacefully.
Assisted suicide is a dangerous across-the-board health care policy, particularly for those of us that live with disability and serious disease on a daily basis. Nash seems to have ignored all the dangers posed to the disability community and seriously ill when the ruling was issued.
We hope New Mexico Attorney General Gary King will stand with the disability rights community and appeal this decision.
The Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund is a leading national civil rights law and policy center whose mission is to advance the civil and human rights of people with disabilities.