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Independent Living News & Policy from the National Council on Independent Living

Op-Ed: Why Social Workers Should Oppose Assisted Suicide

By Jessica Rodgers

As a social work intern with the Independent Living Center of the Hudson Valley, I advocate for all individuals to live as independently as possible in the community. I also oppose the dangerous assisted suicide legislation that continues to be pushed upon the people of New York.

For decades, opponents have warned about the dangers this sort of legislation holds for the disabled community. Despite supposed safeguards and attempts on the part of proponents to ease concerns, the world has hurtled along exactly as disability-rights advocates have feared. One need look no further than Switzerland where those willing to pay for it can buy a designer suicide. Belgium has perhaps gone the farthest of all by allowing children the option to kill themselves and not differentiating between mental distress and physical illness. A PBS special even followed a Belgian physician as he made a home visit to give one of his patients a lethal injection. Her diagnosis? Depression.

For the old, the sick, and the disabled — particularly those in poverty — the “right to die” may, sooner rather than later, become the “duty to die.”

Packaged as “aid in dying,” the truth is that physician-assisted suicide creates a new category of “other” within our society: Those to whom “help” is redefined as death. A doctor who prescribes a depressed teenager an overdose on lethal medications would be treated as a monster, yet that same doctor who does the exact same thing for the 50-year-old woman with cancer is simply being compassionate.

As social workers lead the charge in eliminating stigma around mental illness, we must be particularly aware of how mental health is being treated around the world. If, in the United States, we treat physical illness with accepted suicide, why should there be a distinction between a physically terminal or lingering illness, and a mental one? If we have a patient who is so depressed that they feel death is the only answer, should we refer them for psychiatric services and do our best to help them through the darkness? Or should we simply give them a handbook on how to make death efficient?

If the latter seems distasteful there’s good reason: We know that death is not help, and suicide is not healing. We already know that women, minorities, and the disabled have to fight harder for better health care. How do we protect the most vulnerable from a world that accepts and legalizes suicide as an appropriate answer to fear and loneliness at least some of the time? It’s no mystery why respected medical organizations such as the American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association join with disability rights organizations to oppose so-called aid in dying.

Our laws reflect the society we want to be, which is why social workers advocate for legislation that provides care for the sick, the hungry, the poor, and the lonely. When legislation is introduced that would radically change the roles of our doctors, and egregiously redefine compassion and health care in our culture, we must be willing to stand up for the vulnerable.

As a future social worker I stand in alliance with disability-rights advocates and all who value basic human dignity to oppose assisted suicide.

Jessica Rodgers is a student at the University of Albany and president of the school’s Baccalaureate Social Welfare Association.

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