NRL News

Lawyer who lives with cerebral palsy comments on assisted suicide

by | Jan 26, 2015


Editor’s note. The following is the speech by Martin Benton, a lawyer who lives with Cerebral Palsy, on the issue of assisted suicide, at a meeting in Washington, DC January 21. It first appeared at

Martin Benton

Martin Benton

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you on such an important topic. While I am not representing any particular organization or disability group, it is important that you hear a perspective shared by millions of Americans who live daily with a variety of disabilities.

Although my cerebral palsy makes my speech somewhat difficult to understand at times, some people have observed that my southern accent acquired from growing up in a small rural Georgia town is the real barrier to clearly understanding what I am saying. To make it easier to follow my remarks, I have provided a handout, sans the southern accent. I am not the least bit offended if you find reading along on the handout much easier than listening to what I am saying. What is more important is that you hear from persons with disabilities like me on this topic.

Over a dozen major grassroots disability organizations whose members are self-advocates living with a range of disabilities are on record in strong opposition to the legalization of assisted suicide. These various groups recognize the grave threat that assisted suicide poses to persons with disabilities like me and many others.

I ask you to ponder what the motivating forces are for many people who are adamant proponents for the legalization of assisted suicide. Is it primarily to provide a means of alleviating intractable pain or to establish a semblance of control over the dying process, in other words, “death with dignity”? I would suggest to you that from the experience from Oregon and Washington States where assisted suicide is the law of the land, it is neither. Rather, reports from these states show that the primary motivation of many individuals advocating for assisted suicide is the fear of disability, a fear grounded on some basic stereotypes prevalent in our society that living with a disability is a life not worth living, i.e., living a life that is lacking in wholeness or somewhat less than whole. It is a fear of being vulnerable, of losing autonomy, of losing the ability to engage in activities that they take for granted, and even the fear of loss of bodily functions. Along with this fear of vulnerability is a fear of d
ependence or being a burden to their loved ones and society in general. In other words, a fear of living with a disability like mine.

It may shock some people to know that our lives are rewarding and exciting. My disability of cerebral palsy is a life-long reality, and I have acquired additional disabilities along the way, including a diagnosis of bi-polar disorder shortly before my first wedding anniversary, and chronic pain due to aging with CP. Additionally, in 2000 I successfully underwent prostate cancer surgery, and thus consider myself a cancer survivor. I am happily married to a loving, supportive woman, and we have two beautiful adult children, and a wonderful son-in-law.

By profession I am an attorney, retired after thirty-two years of service with the U.S. government and several years in private practice. I am also a potter, and currently spend my time in the studio when I am not traveling nationally and internationally. This does not negate the fact that my disabilities have presented obstacles along the way. I would be lying to myself, and to you, to say that my life has been without difficulties, each person faces their own trials.

I am very concerned about the ramifications untreated depression can have in situations where assisted suicide is a ready option. From my own experience looking into the abyss of darkness caused by depression, I personally feel that it is very dangerous to make readily available lethal drugs that may be used to provide a false and irreversible solution to a sometimes undiagnosed and treatable illness. Once the abyss of taking the prescribed lethal drugs is crossed, there can be no turning back or seeking effective treatment.

Another concern that I have on both a personal level and a public policy perspective is the untenable position placed on the medical profession by such laws. As we request that doctors “do no harm and pledge, and I quote “I will give no deadly medicine to any one if asked, nor suggest any such counsel,” we are asking that they take actions contrary to the very nature and purpose of the medical profession. Further, by requesting doctors to make decisions on prescribing such lethal drugs to particular individuals, we are not only asking them to violate the basic fundamentals of the healing profession which they have chosen, we are asking them to make decisions as to the quality of life of a particular individual. I would suggest to you, with respect to individuals with significant disabilities, that we are reaching a slippery slope where the lives of those with disabilities are judged, not on the basis of their inherent dignity as fellow human beings, but rather on the basis of prevailing societal standards of
productivity and the ideal of a non-disability reality.

As you may know assisted suicide laws establish eligibility criteria that require the individual seeking the assistance of the physician to be diagnosed as having a terminal illness with a life expectancy of six months or less. Such diagnoses have proven in the first two states to enact assisted suicide laws to be highly problematic and unpredictable.

It is a great irony that in 2015, as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Federal legislation recognizing the dignity and worth of persons with disabilities, we, as persons with disabilities, are fighting for our lives in states throughout this great country, and indeed in countries throughout the world. While we celebrate access in education, employment and public facilities, we are threatened by laws that single out our community as worthy of sanctioned suicide. For all others suicide is seen as a tragedy, and prevention programs abound. But for those of us whose quality of life is questioned and feared, suicide is offered as the “compassionate choice.” I would suggest to you ladies and gentlemen that this is a very insidious form of discrimination that we must fight with all the forces that we can muster.

I would like to thank you for giving me your attention and allowing me to share my thoughts on this very important social issue of our time.

Categories: Assisted Suicide