The death of Brittany Maynard has generated attention on “death with dignity” and a push to enact laws on physician-assisted suicide in California (“How we die is no one’s business but our own,” Viewpoints, Nov. 11). As a person with a significant disability, I believe we need to think through this concept and its ramifications, especially for seniors and people with disabilities.
What does “death with dignity” mean? To many, it means dying without losing the ability to dress yourself and get in and out of bed, or having to experience the loss of certain physical or cognitive abilities, such as walking or seeing the way you once did.
For many with significant disabilities, needing assistance with such activities has become routine. We live good and full lives, work, get married, have children and make a positive difference.
We have come to identify “dignity” as meaning we can be interdependent with other people, show and receive respect, and express our personal values in our lives. We believe we have “dignity” whether or not we can see, walk or think like others.
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Many of us find the concept of “death with dignity” demeaning and devaluing since it implies that our state of being is “undignified.” We cannot disagree with this more strongly.
We also fear expanding the role of physicians to include assisted suicide. Many people with significant disabilities were given terminal diagnoses, only to go on to live full, productive lives. What if, in the first throes of depression, which is a natural part of the adjustment process, they had taken the lethal dose of prescribed drugs?
Too many assume people would prefer death over disability. This societal stereotype makes it too easy for some to encourage the use of assisted suicide.
What do we – people with significant disabilities – say to a person like Brittany Maynard? We would strongly urge that they be given full information about treatment options such as hospice and palliative care. In her case, she could have used these options when her symptoms were too severe.
We would say, no matter how compelling one person’s story is, we must look deeply into what “dignity” means for all human beings and provide support for everyone to have dignity each and every day of their lives.
Catherine Campisi is former director of the California Department of Rehabilitation and was chairperson of the state Inter-agency Americans with Disabilities Act Task Force.