The confrontation was polite–even respectful–but it was undeniably a clash of adversaries.
Paul Longmore, an associate professor at San Francisco State University, is one of the disability community’s most outspoken opponents of legalized assisted suicide. Andrew Batavia of Miami Beach, Fla., is a well-known attorney and health and disability policy expert who favors legalization.
Longmore had polio and uses a ventilator; Batavia is a C2-3 quadriplegic from a spinal cord injury. Both frame the assisted suicide issue in terms of disability rights; both are highly articulate spokesmen.
In a February 3, 1997, conference call, Longmore and Batavia debated physician-assisted suicide for New Mobility readers. The occasion was their first meeting, and was both improbable and inevitable. Their views are worlds apart, yet the vital importance of the issue demands that adversaries talk. The discussion began with a question: Can a request by a disabled person for a physician’s assistance in dying be seen as a rational and uncoerced choice?
Paul Longmore: Historically, when people with disabilities have wanted a physician’s help in ending their lives, courts have automatically assumed that first, they were acting in response to their disability alone and second, it was a reasonable thing to want to die. Whereas, for somebody who is not disabled, the automatic response is to try to help the person and solve the problems. This happens to people with disabilities even when it’s made clear that there are all sorts of societal factors that have brought the person to this point.
Andrew Batavia: I understand that people with disabilities have always been devalued and we need to rectify that. Certainly, we need to educate the public and the medical community. But I feel that the individual should be able to make the decision. In the context of the Supreme Court case being considered now, we’re talking about the right of competent, terminally ill individuals to end their lives. These people are suffering, they’re in the last few months of their lives, and there’s no reason that the state should interfere. Their decisions have to be respected as rational.
For Whom? By Whom?
AB: When it comes to terminally ill individuals, I strongly support their right to physician assistance in dying. The state’s interest in denying this right is very, very small and the individual’s interest in ending suffering is very great. I have a greater concern once you get beyond the terminal condition, for the reasons Paul states, but ultimately I would support the right of states to give all individuals–including people with disabilities–that right.
PL: The right to end their lives, or the right to end their lives with a physician’s help? Physician assistance is the key difference here.
AB: I would certainly support their right to end their lives. But once you start bringing in the apparatus of the medical community, I have some reservations about coercion. I do think state law could have protections built into it. If, for example, non-term