Assisted Suicide Laws Violate the ADA

The 22nd Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) seems like the perfect opportunity to set the record straight about how theADA relates to assisted suicide.

There’s a rarely articulated idea that assisted suicide is a sort of ADA“reasonable accommodation” to enable people who have serious physical impairments to have equal access to suicide.  This is the rationale for legalizing assisted suicide set forth in the recent Carter case in British Columbia (see our recent blog about that case).

This “reasonable accommodation” theory doesn’t really hold up on closer examination.  For one thing, none of the assisted suicide laws require any type of claim or proof that the individual cannot commit suicide without assistance.  In fact, anyone can commit suicide by refusing food and water, a method of committing suicide that even Compassion and Choices advocates as “peaceful.”  Furthermore, healthy and able-bodied people are more likely to survive a suicide attempt than die, but assisted suicide bills have never included eligibility for them.

Not Dead Yet has always taken the position that assisted suicide laws violate the ADA by setting up a double standard for how society responds to a person who says they want to commit suicide – some people get suicide prevention and others get suicide assistance, and the difference is the person’s health and disability status. 

Below is the ADA excerpt from the Amicus Brief written by disability rights attorney Steve Gold and filed in the case of Baxter v. Montana on behalf of Not Dead Yet, ADAPT, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, National Council on Independent Living and the National Spinal Cord Injury Association:

Denying People with Disabilities the State Benefit of Suicide Prevention and Enforcement of Homicide Laws Will Violate the ADA

            Congress clearly understood this history when, in 1990, it enacted theADA, the basic civil rights statute for people with disabilities. After extensive hearings, Congress made several Findings, including:

             historically, society has tended to isolate and segregate individuals with disabilities, and despite some improvements, such forms of discrimination continue to be a serious and pervasive social problem;  42 U.S.C. Sections 12101(a)(2).

            To address and remedy this pervasive and relentless discrimination, Congress substantively required that “no qualified individual with a disability shall . . . be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of any public entity….” 42 U.S.C. § 12132. See 28 C.F.R. section 35.130(b)(discrimination includes denying or not affording an opportunity for people with disabilities to benefit from services either equal to or as effective as those afforded nondisabled persons).

            Providing assisted suicide only for people with disabilities and denying them suicide prevention services, based on a doctor’s prediction of terminal status or other justification, violates the ADA because the presence or absence of disability determines whether state and local governments:      

  • enforce laws requiring health professionals to protect individuals who pose a danger to themselves;
  • respond to expressions of suicidal intent in people with disabilities with the application of lethal measures that are never applied to people without disabilities;
  • investigate and enforce abuse and neglect and homicide statutes in cases reported as assisted suicides.

The doctor’s determination of someone’s eligibility for assisted suicide confers absolute legal immunity on the doctor, and all normal suicide-related procedures are set aside.  The existence of a disability should never be the basis for these distinctions.

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So, Happy Anniversary to the ADA! – Diane Coleman

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