Weekly Wire
Salt Lake City Weekly Is There a Good Death?

By Karen Denton

AUGUST 18, 1997:  A friend of mine committed suicide recently. The day after I learned of his death the Supreme Court ruled that no constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide exists; each state is left to determine a policy on its own.

My friend died without assistance, but for medically related reasons. He faced the rapid, downhill slope after a long struggle with cancer. I felt he had the right to make that choice, and the right to request assistance from a supportive member of the medical community.

Then I had a casual chat with Barbara Toomer, the Executive Director of The Disabled Rights Action Committee (DRAC).

Barbara has been one of my sages since the days she and I waited outside the Utah House and Senate doors so that we could eventually try to persuade legislators to do good work. I may not always agree with her, but I always listen.

Her issue is whether physician-assisted suicide is really a choice or a push, especially since it seems aimed at those people often perceived as lacking a high quality of life.

According to Barbara, only 5 out of the more than 20 people that Dr. Kevorkian has killed — and yes, she uses the word killed — were able-bodied. The rest, she suspects, were easily coerced by relatives who did not want to deal with increasing incapacity or who were not fully mentally-capable of making an informed decision.

Barbara maintains that able-bodied people who contemplate suicide are surrounded by an array of services to dissuade them; disabled people sometimes feel that they are being encouraged to leave. This is unequal treatment.

She has history on her side: Proponents of the eugenics movement early in this century suggested that society would be better off with a little genetic engineering. Hitler started with the mentally and physically disabled as genetically inferior people before moving onto new territory.

We may think we've come a long way since then, but the recent revelations about the treatment for mentally-ill prisoners at Point of the Mountain indicate otherwise.

At some level, society does not consider the lives and contributions of mentally or physically-disabled people to be as valuable as those of able-bodied people. Television shows portray characters who hear they will never walk again, but by the end of the show a miracle happens and they're finishing their first marathon. They aren't shown living a full life despite a disability. It's this pervasive attitude that concerns Barbara who would, at the very least, roll over the toes of anyone who suggested that she is "confined" to a wheelchair.

"I can respect the idea [of physician-assisted suicide], but I am leery of it. I think it's going to lead to mass killing ... because the ability for abuse is there."

It is the assisted portion that concerns her the most. Barbara accepts that some people facing the last stages of a terminal illness may choose to end their lives, but this should be on their own, without the medical community orchestrating the action.

I understand her point of view. We don't want folks, especially the most vulnerable, shoved out life's portal before they're ready or without their permission. But should people face only the option of finding out surreptitiously how to die or being forced to endure intense pain because of our emphasis on noble deaths? If we regard the beginning of life as a matter of choice, then let's extend the same option to the end of it.

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