A swarm of disability rights activists — many in wheelchairs — funneled into New York State assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal’s Albany office on February 11. There, they demanded a meeting with the Manhattan Democrat so they could denounce her bill to legalize assisted suicide.
“People with disabilities are told every day they’d be better off dead,” says Stephanie Woodward, a 26-year-old disability rights lawyer who was at the protest in her wheelchair. “Instead of giving suicide prevention or help, [these bills] open the doors for us to off ourselves.”
The hour-long protest, which began around 3:30 p.m., resulted in a visit from the Albany Police Department, according to Woodward. Activists, clad in bright pink shirts that read “Not Dead Yet,” chanted and shook soda cans to protest the bill, which would allow terminal patients who wish to end their lives to ask for a dose of lethal drugs. The bill would require the patient to request the drugs from a doctor in front of at least two witnesses, and repeat that same request at least fifteen days later.
Though the protest appears to have been well-coordinated — about twenty activists showed up — the group’s antics were poorly timed. Rosenthal is currently in Manhattan, as the next legislative session is not scheduled to begin for another three weeks. Only a surprised intern and a staff member were in the Albany office to experience the drama. “I don’t understand the need for confrontation,” Rosenthal told the Voice after being reached in her Manhattan office.
Rosenthal plans to meet with the group once she’s back in Albany. But she says the stunt wasn’t necessary to get her attention.
“Everybody who knows me knows that I’m enthusiastic to meet with anybody about any of my bills,” she says. “There are safeguards in the bill, that’s something I want to discuss with people. I don’t shy away from contentious issues.”
The bill was referred to the state legislature’s health committee in January 2015 — only two weeks before supporters of legal assisted suicide filed a lawsuit with similar aims in the New York State Supreme Court. Rosenthal says she was inspired to propose the bill after hearing the story of 29-year-old California woman Brittany Maynard. In 2014, after learning she had an aggressive form of brain cancer, Maynard moved from California to Oregon so she could legally commit suicide and die surrounded by loved ones.
“I really have thought long and hard about whether I would support this kind of law,” says the Upper West Side and Hell’s Kitchen representative, who dealt with difficult end-of-life decisions herself when she had to sign a Do Not Resuscitate order for her ailing mother. “I don’t think [these activists] understand no one is forcing [patients to end their lives]. It’s just an option for people who are despairing and want to die with dignity.”
But some activists think the cultural stigma against disabled people is too rampant for anyone to be able to separate patients’ personal choices from family pressure and bureaucratic negligence. They point to Oregon, where assisted death became legal in 1997. They say that state’s department of human services has since failed to investigate medical abuse or complications resulting from the law.
“Our concern is [that] through mistakes, coercion, and abuse, someone will be lost where they weren’t terminal or it’s not voluntary. And that’s unacceptable,” says Diane Coleman. She’s the founder and CEO of Not Dead Yet, the national disability rights group that organized the office protest. “The reason most people are asking for suicide is because they feel like a burden, not because they’re in pain. That’s a duty to die, not a choice to die.”
Woodward puts it a little more graphically.
“[The disabled] have people tell us, ‘I’d rather die than crap my pants,’ ” she says. “I have friends with disabilities who shit their pants every damn day. And they love their lives. I’m like a puppy dog. I pee all the time. I don’t want to die because of it. I just want a clean pair of underwear.”