Disability groups angered by Belgium assisted suicide case

A highly publicized assisted suicide case in Belgium, long known for its looser regulations of such matters, has triggered a wave of responses from disability rights activists.

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Unlike in the United States, where just three states allow some form of assisted suicide, the practice is widespread in Belguim. On December 14, physicians assisted in the suicide of two blind twins, both whom were going blind, who decided they no longer wanted to live since they would no longer be able to see each other.

The twins were 45 and otherwise healthy. In states in the U.S. where assisted suicide is legal, the law only applies to individuals found to be terminally ill.

“This disturbing news from Belgium is a stark example of the common, and in this case tragic, misunderstanding of disability and its consequences,” said Dr. Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, in a news release.

“Adjustment to any disability is difficult, and deaf-blind people face their own particular challenges, but from at least the time of Helen Keller it has been known that these challenges can be met, and the technology and services available today have vastly improved prospects for the deaf-blind and others with disabilities.

“That these men wanted to die is tragic; that the state sanctioned and aided their suicide is frightening.”

Disability rights groups have long opposed assisted suicide measures. Unlike many of their progressive allies, who see the right to die as a civil liberties issue, many disability rights groups believe that patients seeking life-ending medication do so because they have been denied proper services and that therefore, these laws incentive doctors to withhold proper end-of-life treatment.

Stephen Drake of Not Dead Yet, an advocacy group often involved with opposing Death with Dignity measures, urged activists to speak out against the case.

The National Association of the Deaf and the American Association of the Deaf-Blind condemned the media’s coverage of the event.

“Facts have emerged that the twins sought death not because they both were deaf and becoming blind, but most likely because they experienced a number of other physical challenges and pain,” the groups stated in a news release.

“Nevertheless, why these twins sought vigorously to die rather than to live as deaf-blind individuals with other physical problems cannot be fully known, but the press has purported that the twins believed it better to be dead than deaf-blind. The NAD and AADB dispute this characterization and strongly reject this public perception.”