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Newsletter > INCITEMENT 1997 v31 n1 > ADAPT and Not Dead Yet File Brief

ADAPT and Not Dead Yet File Brief:

Physician Assisted Suicide Violates ADA

On January 8, hundreds of disability rights activists rallied in front of the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. while the Court heard arguments on two assisted suicide cases. The rally, organized by Not Dead Yet, focused, for the first time, national attention on the disability rights take on the issue: the threat that such "assistance" can mean for us.

ADAPT and Not Dead Yet contend that the legalization of physician-assisted suicide not only poses an overwhelming threat to the lives of people with disabilities, it is a violation of the equal protection guaranteed by the Americans with Disabilities Act, ADA. According to the two laws being reviewed on that day, and most versions of physician assisted suicide laws, the only people who would have the right to have a doctor kill them would be "mentally alert" people with physical impairments. This "right" makes physical disability truely a fate worse than death.

In their "friend of the court" brief, Not Dead Yet and ADAPT describe numerous cases in which people with non-terminal disabilities have been granted assistance to die without being provided suicide prevention or necessary health related services. For example, Elizabeth Bouvia, a woman with cerebral palsy, sued to obtain assistance to die after several personal setbacks, including a miscarriage, being forced out of her major in college and dropped from vocational rehabilitation services, not to mention the breakup of her marriage. "The court, the press and the public are so prejudiced against disabled people that they ignored the factors that might make anyone feel suicidal, and only focused on the disability," said Diane Coleman, co-founder of Not Dead Yet and co-author of the brief. "Since Bouvia's disability was incurable, they wrongly concluded that her desire to die was permanent. This was in 1985, and it took two years for the court to grant her so-called right to die. By then, she didn't go through with the assisted suicide and is alive today. But, to the detriment of other disabled people, the case is often cited as a precedent in other cases. The Bouvia case established that society can have a double standard about suicide prevention - one for people with serious health impairments and one for everybody else. It's nothing but blatant disability prejudice and discrimination."

ADAPT and Not Dead Yet describe other cases as well, including that of Kenneth Bergstedt, a 30-year-old ventilator user who feared he would have to go to a nursing home when his father was dying of cancer. Disabled advocates tried to contact him to tell him about in-home service alternatives to nursing homes, but his father would not let them talk to him. His "right to die" was granted by the court, and carried out by his father, before he ever knew his real options.

The brief also argues that no "safeguards" will be sufficient to protect against abuses. Approximately three-quarters of Kevorkian's assisted suicides involved non-terminal disabled people, again denying them meaningful suicide prevention. Moreover, according to a governmental report in the Netherlands, where assisted suicide has been decriminalized, involuntary euthanasia of non-terminal disabled people is common, even though the practice is supposed to be confined to terminally ill individuals who voluntarily request it. In the U.S., which has not recognized the basic right to health care, medical decisions are increasingly made by profit-driven managed care providers. In this environment, the potential for abuse is even greater.

The American Medical Association also filed a friend of the court brief on these two cases, and in it pointed out the irony if in a country in which we have no right to health care, our first right to medical treatment would be the right to be killed by a doctor.

For a copy of the ADA & NDY brief, or to find out more about Not Dead Yet's activities, check their web site at or call: Diane Coleman 708/209-1500.

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