By S.J. Rosenbaum
I think my opinions about doctor-assisted suicide crystallized the night Mike — my wheelchair-using, ventilator-breathing boyfriend — choked on pineapple juice, passed out, and died.
He was dead for several minutes, on a steel table in the ER. The doctor shocked the pulse back into his heart and dropped him into an induced coma, but it still wasn't clear whether he would make it. As I stood by his bedside, shaking, one of the nurses touched me on the shoulder.
"Maybe it's better this way," she murmured.
I'll never forget that moment. We'd been watching a movie together a few hours before. We had plans to go clubbing. Maybe it's better this way?
I'm not a violent person, but I wanted to punch that lady in the face.
When I started going out with Mike, I thought that prejudice against people with disabilities was something we'd left behind along with Jim Crow and sodomy laws. I was shocked, again and again, to find that I was wrong. So wrong. Everyone I met had ideas about what it must be like to date Mike — that we never went out, that we couldn't have sex, that I must have to take care of him all the time — that were so false as to be laughable. We did laugh at that stuff. We had to. But for every person who came up to us to congratulate Mike on his "bravery" in taking a trip to the mall, there was someone who actually thought he'd be better off dead.
Some of those people were doctors.
Not the young doctor who fought like a demon to restart his heart in the ER. But there were others: well-meaning doctors who saw Mike, and people like him, as pitiable — as "bad outcomes." In fact, that's the norm: study after study has shown that doctors, as a group, consistently underestimate the quality of life of their disabled patients. Those prejudices — unquestioned and unacknowledged — can have disastrous results.
I don't know anyone born with a serious disability whose doctors didn't tell their parents that they would never be able to live independently. A doctor at Mass General, who treats children with muscular dystrophy, told me about colleagues who had counseled their patients against using the ventilators that would prolong their lives by decades. Those doctors weren't trying to do harm. They simply saw their patients' lives as not worth living.
As disability activist Carol Gill writes: "Many of us have been harmed significantly by medical professionals who knew little about our lives, who thought incurable functional impairments were the worst things that could happen to a person, and who were confident they knew best."
All this, then, is why I'll be voting against referendum Question 2, the Death with Dignity Act, on November 6.
The language of the bill sounds reasonable: it would allow doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medication, upon request, to patients with terminal diseases. But it wouldn't actually have much benefit for the dying, who already have the same access to self-administered suicide as anyone else. Instead, it could present doctors with an option to offer the patients they think they can't help: the bill's definition of "terminal disease" is so vague as to encompass disabilities like Mike's, and it has no requirement that a person seeking the fatal dose see a counselor or be screened for depression.