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by Abigail Van Buren

Issue of Assisted Suicide Raises Concerns Among the Disabled

DEAR ABBY: This is in response to your column regarding physician aid-in-dying. Legalized assisted suicide is seen by many as death with dignity -- an end to suffering for terminally ill people who have rationally thought through their options and have made a very personal choice.

History supports the fact that society does not value equally the lives of people with disabilities and those without. During the formative years of the effort to legalize assisted suicide, members of the disabled community voiced philosophical concerns about the dangers to people with disabilities.

Dr. Kevorkian has clearly demonstrated he isn't concerned with whether or not the conditions of his "patients" are terminal. He was recently acquitted of aiding the suicide of a 30-year-old man who had recently become a quadriplegic. Did anyone make a concerted effort to counsel the man for depression, to look closely at the reasons he thought his life wasn't worth living? Maybe he needed peer counseling to address the fears most people have about being disabled, fears about not having adequate support, resources and opportunities necessary to achieve a quality life.

The disabled community has legitimate concerns. While recent court decisions have upheld assisted suicide only for competent, terminally ill adults, Judge Stephen Reinhardt, when he wrote for the majority in the decision of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, also said that death is more humane than continuing to live in "a childlike state of helplessness."

Needing assistance using the toilet, eating and bathing do not connote helplessness, nor preclude having a quality life unless you don't have access to the help you need. Needing help is a far cry from being terminally ill. When an able-bodied person attempts suicide, his or her choice is considered irrational. When a disabled person attempts suicide, the act is more readily judged "sane." After all, if you're not physically functional, how could life be worth living?

The dangers of assisted suicide to the disabled community are enormous as long as doctors, judges and juries continue to cast doubt on the worth of people with disabilities. -- MARY ANN JONES, ACTING EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, WESTSIDE CENTER FOR INDEPENDENT LIVING INC.

DEAR MS. JONES: I have the utmost respect for WCIL and the work it does in helping people with disabilities live independently, and I realize the importance of informing my readers about the concerns of the disabled regarding assisted suicide.

I have always believed that the disabled should be treated with compassion and respect, and helped to live in the mainstream of society.

We should at the same time, however, heed the cry of the terminally ill who are of sound mind and who request aid in dying. The Hemlock Society, which I mentioned in a recent column on this subject, is concerned about the patient who is depressed. For that reason, it proposes that not only must the terminal medical condition be clearly established, but also that patients receive counseling from a mental health professional before any decision is made about aid in dying.

Concern for the terminally ill in no way diminishes our responsibility to people who are disabled.