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Assume that when I wake up tomorrow morning, I decide I want to kill myself. I so inform my family and friends. While I may have my reasons — serious financial problems, perhaps, or loss of a loved one — their reaction would nevertheless be shock and dissuasion. I would be told I’m not acting rationally and that, despite whatever setbacks I have encountered, my life has value and meaning. I would be rushed to the nearest emergency room, where doctors would treat me until they were reasonably certain I would not harm myself. I would be referred for long-term counseling. Much of this would be paid for with taxpayer dollars. It isn’t likely that I would be told that I’m doing the right thing or that my life isn’t worth living. Anyone who tried to help me commit suicide would, in most states, be committing a crime. Now assume I’m disabled. Maybe I have a “terminal” condition, such as cancer or AIDS. Maybe I have quadriplegia or muscular dystrophy and can’t walk, feed, or bathe myself without assistance. Should I still be dissuaded from committing suicide? Under Oregon’s physician-assisted-suicide law, which the federal government is challenging before the Supreme Court this week in Gonzales v. Oregon, the answer for some people is no. For the first time, a state law has carved out an exception to the general rule that society should discourage and prevent suicide. In fact, the law guarantees that some suicide attempts will succeed. The debate over assisted-suicide laws is often portrayed as being about the free will of people who “choose” to die. It isn’t. It is about how we, as a society, react to those who want to kill themselves. When our laws encourage some and discourage others, based on the presence of a disabling medical condition, we implicitly determine that some lives are worth living and are worthy of legal protection, while others are not. LIVES TO PROTECT On paper, at least, the Oregon law appears reasonable. It covers only “competent” people likely to die within six months. It’s also widely believed that assisted suicide is reserved for people in excruciating pain who will die soon anyway. Some argue that, under these circumstances, it is rational for the law to distinguish between people’s quality of life, and that those who believe otherwise are unrealistically sentimental, at best, or, at worst, place religious doctrine over human suffering. It’s true that many oppose assisted suicide on religious grounds, and the media have portrayed the debate as just another chapter in America’s culture wars. But the opposition of people with disabilities is rooted in the principles of civil rights and equal protection. And far from being sentimental, people with disabilities have a realistic, firsthand view of the medical issues surrounding assisted suicide. First, it is not true that most people opt for assisted suicide because of pain. Pain is treatable and manageable. In the Netherlands, where assisted suicide has long been legal, only about 5 percent of persons who requested assisted suicide have listed pain as the reason for doing so. This is also the case in Oregon. Second, “imminent” death cannot be easily pinpointed. People may live for decades with terminal conditions. How do doctors know which of these people are near death? Many times, they don’t. People with disabilities often recall stories of doctors who wrongly assured them they would soon die. Evan Kemp, a former director of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, has written that doctors repeatedly told him he would die from his “incurable” disabilities before reaching adulthood. He has, needless to say, proved them wrong. Assisted suicide has a direct, invidious effect on the treatment of all people with disabilities. Doctors have worried that the availability of a life-ending “treatment” distracts them from their proper focus: improving patients’ lives. In other words, when we spend time determining whether death is “imminent” or whether someone is “competent” for purposes of suicide, we forget about taking measures to alleviate pain, to make people more independent, or to end the discrimination and isolation that, more than the disability itself, diminish people’s quality of life. Some, to be sure, believe assisted suicide should be an absolute right for everyone, disabled or not. But even they are not likely to call for dismantling suicide hotlines or protective fences on the Golden Gate Bridge. Most people view suicide as irrational and something government should try to prevent, certainly not try to facilitate. It is hardly a controversial proposition that government policy on suicide prevention should not differ based on a person’s race or gender. The same should be true of disability.
Max Lapertosa is a lawyer with Access Living, a Chicago-based disability rights organization. He filed an amicus brief on behalf of Not Dead Yet in support of the federal government in Gonzales v. Oregon.

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