NRL News

Disability Rights Community protests being excluded from NJ hearing on doctor-assisted suicide legislation

by | Dec 10, 2014


By Dave Andrusko

asan_logoWe’ve run several stories on New Jersey’s proposed doctor-assisted suicide measure. As NRLC’s Burke Balch, who heads the Robert Powell Center for Medical Ethics, has explained, were it to pass, it would be extremely dangerous, most particularly to people with disabilities. Which explains why the Disability Rights Community was so concerned when it was excluded from testifying on the legislation discussed Monday in a New Jersey Senate committee.

A little bit of background helps put the situation in context. The bad news is that last month, the lower house of New Jersey’s legislature voted 43 to 31 to legalize doctor-prescribed suicide.

The good news—or at least the better news— is that State Senator Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), the powerful chairman of the Senate Health Committee who had been the prime sponsor of a doctor-prescribed suicide bill, announced that he has withdrawn his support for the measure.

By no means does this mean the proposal is defeated, as the alert from the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) made clear. There was a hearing Monday in front of the New Jersey Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee. ASAN was excluded from testifying, indeed, according to ASAN, they were not an isolated case: “the committee deliberately excluded witnesses from the disability community.”

Why is that of more than passing interest? Simply because, as Mr. Balch pointed out, ever since the 1976 New Jersey Supreme Court case of “In re Quinlan,” the state’s courts have held that if someone who has the capacity to do so voluntarily has a legal right, it is unconstitutional to deny that same “right” to someone mentally incapable of choosing to exercise it. Under the doctrine of “substituted judgment,” someone else, such as a relative, must be given the ability to choose, purportedly on the incapacitated person’s behalf, to exercise that right.

The Disability Rights Community is keenly aware of this danger. Here’s ASAN’s statement:

Despite leading disability rights organizations’ long history of opposition to legalization of assisted suicide, the New Jersey Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee held a hearing yesterday on the state’s proposed assisted suicide bill without inviting any representatives of the disability community as witnesses. People with disabilities, who are often presumed to be better off dead than disabled, are particularly vulnerable to abuse under assisted suicide laws. In Oregon, disability – not terminal pain – is the #1 reason cited by individuals seeking assisted suicide. These deaths stem from widespread devaluation of disabled lives and financial pressures facing people in need of intensive supports and palliative care.

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network is deeply concerned about the omission of disabled people and representatives from disability rights organizations at yesterday’s hearing. Given that more than half of the groups in the New Jersey coalition opposing the bill are disability rights organizations and centers for independent living, it is unconscionable that the committee deliberately excluded witnesses from the disability community. Even after our community submitted a formal request for inclusion among the witnesses, the committee declined to invite a disability community representative.

People with disabilities are among the constituencies most deeply impacted by assisted suicide legislation. It is vital that we are included in the policymaking process on issues that will affect our lives, especially ones as dangerous as the specter of legalized assisted suicide.

Nothing About Us, Without Us!

Categories: Assisted Suicide