End of Life Option Act and People with Disabilities

443.2. (b) A person shall not be considered a “qualified individual” under the provisions of this part solely because of age or disability.

Disability is irrelevant under the End of Life Option Act. Being disabled does not qualify anyone to participate in the law; disability alone does not make you eligible for the law.

The chief criterion for qualifying for a prescription of medication under the End of Life Option Act is terminal illness that will lead to death within six months. Other criteria include being an adult resident of California and being mentally competent, i.e. capable of making and communicating your healthcare decisions. You must also must be able to self-administer and ingest the prescribed medication.

Unrepresentative Concerns about Physician-Assisted Dying Laws

Our friend Joan Tollifson, a former disability rights activist who writes and teaches on disability issues, has written that,

“much of the opposition to physician-assisted dying comes from disability rights activists who falsely assume that legalizing the right to die poses a danger to them and undermines the value of their lives. I understand from my own life experience where these fears come from. But in the case of right-to die legislation, I feel that these concerns are enormously exaggerated and actually quite paranoid and misinformed. Those disability groups who are siding with the religious right on this issue don’t speak for all of us with disabilities. “

Paul Spiers, president of Autonomy Now, an organization “advocating for persons with disabilities who expect choice in all aspects of their lives, including choice at the end of life,” too has pointed out that organizations voicing concerns on behalf of people with disabilities about Death with Dignity legislation do not represent all people with disabilities: “a vocal few do not speak for a majority of the disability community.”

In a rebuke to the assumption that people with disabilities do not support the right-to-die legislation Tollifson wrote, “Many elders and people with disabilities very much want physician-assisted dying to be legalized.” According to Spiers, “Polls show a majority of the disability community favors passage of laws providing choice at the end of life.”

People with Disabilities and Their Champions Support Aid in Dying

Oregon Governor Barbara Roberts (1991-1995), who is the mother of an autistic son and whose husband spent the end of his life in a wheelchair, was a parent-lobbyist for the disabled for more than 25 years before she entered politics. Governor Roberts has been a strong supporter of the Oregon Death with Dignity Act: she endorsed Measure 16, which enacted the Oregon Death with Dignity Act in 1994, , both in office and to this day. In a 2008 Seattle Post-Intelligencer op-ed, “I-1000 is not a slippery slope,” she wrote:

Let me state emphatically, I would never support a law that was harmful to individuals with disabilities. This proposed law is not a slippery slope that threatens those with disabilities of any kind.

—Oregon Governor Barbara Roberts, 2008

Sacramento resident Russ Kletzing, blind since shortly after birth and a former President of the National Federation of the Blind, wrote in a 2007 legislative testimony supporting a proposed physician-assisted dying bill:

As a former leader in the disability rights movement and as an individual with a disability, I strongly support AB 374. While I understand that there is fear around this law for some, it is not a fear based on fact. Oregon’s terminal patients, and elderly citizens, have better end of life choices and care than California’s. The rhetoric from opponents who promote intolerance undermines the principles of autonomy and diversity that have been the foundation of the disability rights movement.

Oregon Death with Dignity Act and People with Disabilities

In a 2007 peer-reviewed study, “Legal Physician-Assisted Dying in Oregon and the Netherlands: Evidence Concerning the Impact on Patients in “Vulnerable” Groups,” published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, the authors, including Dr. Linda Ganzini and Dr. Peggy Battin, found that “there is no current evidence for the claim that legalised PAS or euthanasia will have disproportionate impact on patients in vulnerable groups,” among which they included people with disabilities. In other words, research shows no heightened risk, or, in fact, no instances, of abuse of the Oregon Death with Dignity Act as it relates to people with disabilities (or in any other way).

On the contrary, “[t]hose who received physician-assisted dying in the jurisdictions studied appeared to enjoy comparative social, economic, educational, professional and other privileges,” a finding confirmed by annual reports on the use of the Death with Dignity Act issued by the Oregon Health Authority. People who use the Act are, generally, not among the oppressed or vulnerable.

In a 2007 testimony before the American Public Health Association, Robert Joondeph, Executive Director of Disability Rights Oregon (formerly Oregon Advocacy Center), stated that the only complaints his organization had received in relation to the state’s Death with Dignity Act “focused on the concern that the Act might discriminate against persons with disabilities who would seek to make use of the Act but have disabilities which would prevent self administration, thereby denying these persons the ability to use the Dignity Act.” Joondeph confirmed that he had “no personal knowledge of cases in Oregon that contradict the findings in” the above JME study. In addition, DRO had “never received a complaint that a person with disabilities was coerced to make use of the Dignity Act.” In a 2016 update, Joondeph wrote that DRO “has still not received a complaint of exploitation or coercion of an individual with disabilities in the use of Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act.”

Note: This page combines content from Joan Tollifson’s blog post about the issue, our handout from our Yes on I-1000 campaign for the Washington Death with Dignity Act, and referenced sources.