Health care, not “death with dignity”

Opinion piece from the Connecticut Post by Joan Cavanaugh, April 1, 2021.

State needs health care, not “death with dignity”

Anyone who has been with loved ones facing serious, painful illness will empathize deeply with the testimonies in Ed Stannard’s Sunday, March 21 article. I have. And I do.

But as an anti-war, anti-death penalty, pro-choice, human rights advocate who has been compelled to fight attempts by the medical system to restrict and withhold treatment, I also contend that there is a much larger picture to be considered. As a society, we must make decisions to protect the lives of the most vulnerable among us, not place them in further danger. The relevance of these considerations is repeatedly ignored or denied by the proponents of bills such as HB 6425, currently before the Connecticut state Legislature in another attempt to make it legal for doctors to prescribe lethal drugs for their patients.

Specific provisions of HB 6425 are problematic in themselves: among others, the mandate that doctors lie about the cause of the patient’s death, listing the underlying illness only, not the ingestion of the lethal cocktail; the removal of qualifying restrictions from previous bills regarding who can serve as witnesses to the patient’s written request; and the fact that the primary care physician and the “consulting” physician can now share a practice. But the bill must also be viewed in its larger context.

The New York Times Magazine reported on May 3, 2020, that the slogan of Compassion and Choices, which avidly promotes this legislation nationwide, found its way onto a sign at a “You Can’t Close America!” super-spreader event for Trump supporters last spring in Austin, Texas. The faulty premise of “My life, my death, my choice,” present at that rally and in this legislation, is that individual decisions are made in a vacuum without impact on the larger community. While it may offer “choice” for the few, medical assisted suicide is an existential threat to the many.

Medical practitioners already pronounce judgment on a patient’s “quality of life” based upon personal preferences and prejudices combined with institutional mandates and insurance company imperatives to slash costs. The underlying social Darwinist mentality is never acknowledged, but the telling phrase “death with dignity” is often used, suggesting that the care required by many who are disabled, elderly or seriously ill demeans them and burdens caregivers and society. This repudiation of our human connection and responsibility to each another lies at the core of these bills, which contain the seeds of abuse, neglect and coercion.

To deny this and to dismissively state that we are “fighting a battle we don’t need to fight” is insulting and belittles the lived experiences of those who have been forced to constantly struggle against the medical system to get needed care for ourselves or our loved ones. My mother was a Medicare/Medicaid patient who suffered from dementia in her later years. I was browbeaten and harassed by many of her providers and other medical personnel who wanted me to “let her die.” Along with their pious mantras about “quality of life” and “death with dignity,” I was also told point blank by hospital administrators that they could not “afford” to keep treating her.

The longstanding, ugly reality of health care rationing for certain populations was made publicly visible by the COVID crisis: poor, disabled, elderly, Black and brown people already face lethal discrimination. How can proponents of medical assisted suicide now possibly doubt that it would morph into the only option available to those for whom potentially life-saving treatment is pronounced “futile” or deemed too expensive for hospitals and insurance companies to sustain? As a now-elderly person whose only insurance is Medicare, I do not want my cost-effective death, couched in someone else’s view of my diminished “quality of life,” to become the preferred (or only) “treatment” I am offered. Would you?

People coping with the pain and stress caused by a serious illness or disability are too often also forced to fight the medical system to get the care they need, if they even feel empowered to do so. When you have experienced this or witnessed it, you know it is as searing, heartbreaking and terrifying as the experiences described in Stannard’s article.

It would be unconscionable to introduce medical assisted suicide into this environment.

Instead of debating the merits of a bill to allow our doctors to kill us, the state Legislature must craft legislation to provide equitable, comprehensive and full treatment for everyone who wants it, including much improved palliative care (when freely chosen and needed.) These measures — not poison cocktails — are the way to move forward.

Joan Cavanagh lives in New Haven.