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Public Policy Implications of Legalizing Physician-Assisted Suicide

The purpose of this page is to examine the public policy implications of legalizing physician-assisted suicide. It is worth noting that several national organizations of persons with disabilities, ranging from mainstream to militant, have adopted positions officially opposing legalization of physician-assisted suicide. These groups include the National Council on Disability (NCD), the National Council on Independent Living, Justice for All, ADAPT and Not Dead Yet, an organization of individuals with severe disabilities who strongly oppose legalization of physican-assisted suicide.

In addition to my concerns about the public policy implications of legalizing physican-assisted suicide, I also agree with many of the points raised by the NCD, Not Dead Yet and other disability groups that see in legalization a special danger for people with disabilities and chronic illnesses.

For more information on the disability opposition to physican-assisted suicide, visit Not Dead Yet's Web site.  The California Disability Alliance also has a web site with useful information and links on this topic.

Click here to view an excerpt from the National Council on Disability Bulletin announcing the NCD position on physican-assisted suicide.

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Letter to Daily News

[As a public policy analyst and a woman with multiple sclerosis (MS), I want to say emphatically that] California should not legalize doctor-assisted suicide!

Contrary to popular impressions, legalizing doctor-assisted suicide involves much more than personal autonomy or morality. It's a matter of public policy, and it would have implications and ramifications that extend far beyond individual choice. In fact, legalizing assisted suicide ultimately would turn the "right to die" into a "duty to die," especially for people with disabilities and serious chronic illnesses like MS.

 It is clear from experience that there is a serious risk of abuse and that physicians and family members, rather than patients, are likely to be the real decision makers. But less well recognized are the subtle and indirect ways in which legalization would affect health care for everyone.

In a world of legalized physician-assisted suicide, would a health plan pay $10,000 a year for me to take an MS medication that could prevent or slow progression of the disease, or would the plan simply exclude that treatment, wait until my condition worsened to a point that I found intolerable, and then "compassionately," cover the cost of my doctor-assisted suicide? And with coverage of expensive new treatments curtailed or excluded (effectively destroying the market for any resulting product), why would anyone invest in research and development for new treatments? Similar questions can be asked regarding other conditions as well.

 Rather than legalizing doctor-assisted suicide, we should be improving the quality and availability of palliative care for terminally ill patients and of support services for family caregivers and for individuals with disabilities and serious chronic illnesses.

Laura Remson Mitchell

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