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Many people with disabilities want to die peacefully at the end

Many people with disabilities want to die peacefully at the end

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Thirty years ago Sunday, President George H.W. Bush signed a rare bipartisan law that still impacts the lives of all Americans: the American Disabilities Act (ADA). For example, the ADA required curb cuts so wheelchair users could cross streets independently also benefit bicyclists and parents pushing strollers.

I am a public health physician living with both colon cancer and multiple sclerosis, so I greatly appreciate the benefits of the ADA. Unfortunately, as a result of my colon cancer, I too easily can imagine that my final days may bring great suffering. If that suffering becomes unbearable, I hope that I will be able to choose from a full range of care options, and I hope that such a choice will be available to all people in that situation.

That’s why I support legislation in 20 states nationwide that would authorize mentally capable, terminally ill adults to have the option to get prescription medication to end their suffering peacefully if it becomes intolerable.

The states that have considered medical aid-in-dying bills during their 2019-2020 legislation sessions include: Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, Utah and Virginia.

Both national and state polls show voters across our country support medical aid in dying. A Gallup Poll Social Survey conducted in May showed that 74 percent of U.S. residents agree that: “When a person has a disease that cannot be cured, doctors should be allowed by law to end the patient’s life by some painless means if the patient and his or her family request it?” Majority support included every demographic group measured in the survey: gender, ethnicity, age, education, and political party affiliation (if any), ranging from conservatives to liberals.

While there are no national polls of people with disabilities on this issue, Purple Insights conducted surveys in 2013 and 2014 showing that voters with disabilities in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey supported medical aid in dying by 63 to 74 percent, very similar to the support level of voters overall in those states of 62 to 71 percent. Finally, a 2018 Medscape survey showed that 58 percent of doctors nationwide said that “‘physician-assisted dying’ should be made legal for terminally ill patients.”

Medical aid in dying has been authorized in Washington, D.C., and nine states, starting more than two decades ago with Oregon in 1997, without one documented case of misuse.

In fact, Disability Rights Oregon’s (DRO) executive director confirmed in a letter last year that:

“DRO has never to my knowledge received a complaint that a person with disabilities was coerced or being coerced to make use of the [Oregon Death with Dignity] Act.”

In addition, according to a 2007 Journal of Medical Ethics report about this Oregon law:

“Rates of assisted dying in Oregon ... showed no evidence of heightened risk for the elderly, women, the uninsured ... people with low educational status, the poor, the physically disabled or chronically ill, minors, people with psychiatric illnesses including depression, or racial or ethnic minorities, compared with background populations.”

The purpose of the American Disabilities Act: “is to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else,” according to the American Disabilities Act National Network. Medical aid-in-dying legislation honors this historic law’s mission, by providing people with disabilities the same autonomy and freedom as everyone else to make our own health care decisions at life’s inevitable end.

While medical science seemingly can work miracles, we need to remember that the thing most people want at the end of life is not one more try at immortality, but rather a peaceful death surrounded by loved ones.

Dr. Mary Applegate is a clinical professor at the University of Albany School of Public Health.

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