Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Vermont: Jackowski: Assisted suicide is not the answer


Posted By Opinion On May 20, 2013 @ 11:00 pm

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Rosemarie Jackowski, an advocacy journalist and peace activist who is the author of “Banned in Vermont.”

The “assisted suicide bill” does exactly what it is designed not to do. It will eliminate choice for the most vulnerable. Unintended consequences are sure to follow. We need more, not fewer rights. Government-approved suicide as an end-of-life option does not give more rights — in reality it takes them away.

Some legislators promise “safeguards.” There are no safeguards that can ensure that there will not be abuse. Some of the most vulnerable will be pressured to end it all for the convenience and sometimes for the financial benefit of others. Patients will be unduly influenced into giving in to family members. Many elderly/disabled have loving supportive families. It is those who do not who are at the highest risk. There is no way that abuse can be prevented. Imagine being isolated with caregivers — Stockholm syndrome.

The assisted suicide law will deprive many of choice. Recent history shows that more than 300 cases of reported abuse of the disabled/elderly have been ignored by the state. This is evidence that the state cannot protect the vulnerable. The assisted suicide law will add another layer of risk. It will make things worse.

The need for health care advocates is one of the biggest issues of our time. Families are dispersed and distant. Often the elderly are abandoned. Friends die. Suddenly a nursing home is the only option.

Prejudice cloaked in good intentions is still prejudice. Why is the law limited to the most vulnerable, the disabled, the elderly? If suicide is a movement that will benefit society, open it up to everyone. The devaluing of the elderly and disabled is now an accepted fact of life and death. If this law did not show prejudice against the most vulnerable, it would be written to include everyone — young and old, healthy and sick.
Sometimes the young and healthy would chose to end it all.

For those pressured to die, there will be no choice. Behind closed doors in private, who will be there to protect them? Elder abuse is a major hidden problem. Talk to anyone in a nursing home — give them anonymity, and they will tell all.

Recently, a friend was searching for a way out … suicide. He was not in physical pain. He was not terminally ill. His problem was that he was in a nursing home and the conditions there were not good. What he needed was a health care advocate — someone to advocate for him. The need for health care advocates is one of the biggest issues of our time. Families are dispersed and distant. Often the elderly are abandoned. Friends die. Suddenly a nursing home is the only option. There have been two reported murders in local nursing homes in recent years. No one can estimate how many murders go unreported. Isolation, neglect and poor living conditions are other important issues.

It can be argued that there are some justifications for suicide. That may be true, but belief in the infallibility of a diagnosis is not a valid reason. Some doctors and hospitals have already announced that they will not participate in this type of death process.

The assisted suicide bill is the wrong answer to the wrong question. The important question is not the length of time left. “…Over the years I’ve learned that my patients are people who can live an entire lifetime in six months or a year. What they do with this time represents a much higher quality of life than that enjoyed by ‘normal’ people who are caught up in the trivia of day-to-day, and not really focused on what is important …” Keith Black, MD, author of “Brain Surgeon.”

The question that we should be asking is how can we improve life and death for all. There are three unmet needs that should be addressed by the Legislature.

First, health care must be made available to all. Universal, comprehensive single payer that includes dental, vision and long-term care is the answer.

Second, the alleviation of pain must be considered. Ethics require that everything scientifically possible should be done to eliminate suffering. It is usually possible to do that without killing the patient.

Third, and most important of all, those at high risk must be protected. There is only one way to do that. We must set up a system of health care advocates. This does not have to cost taxpayers a lot of money. A system based on volunteers could work. The main qualification would be compassion and the pledge to honor privacy.

Will we soon see Grandpa set adrift on an ice floe on the shore of Lake Champlain? There must be a better way.