When infant Stephen Drake was being born sideways breech in a New York hospital in the mid-’50s, a doctor wrongly used forceps to pull him from the womb. The resulting brain injury gave Drake hydrocephalus, which would require a lifelong brain shunt to manage. He also would have permanent challenges with nonverbal learning, tremors, body movement, and coordination.
Now Drake works for Not Dead Yet of Rochester, New York. In part, it’s a nonprofit group for people with disabilities opposed to assisted suicide laws.
In a telephone interview, 55-year-old Drake said, “Not Dead Yet was founded in 1996, shortly after the third time Dr. Jack Kevorkian was acquitted for being involved in suicides, the last time with two women with non-terminal disabilities. That same year, the Supreme Court had two cases on whether a person had a constitutional right to assisted suicide. At that time, many individual disability advocates were speaking out against assisted suicide, but it was clear a group was needed to focus on that issue alone.”
Drake cited a recent poll of people with disabilities in the United Kingdom. Although some people with disabilities there have pushed hard for having a legal right to assisted suicide, the majority of people with disabilities were against it.
In the U.S., Drake and many others with disabilities also have serious concerns. For one, people with disabilities are increasingly seen as a financial and emotional burden on society. If an assisted suicide law existed nationally, said Drake, medical professionals and family members would be in a position to consciously or unconsciously coerce vulnerable people with disabilities into making a lasting decision they normally wouldn’t consider.
“And another concern is that [assisted suicide laws] are discriminatory,” said Drake. “If, as advocates argue, giving someone assistance for suicide is honoring their suicide (choice), then assistance should be offered to anyone committing suicide, not just the ill, elderly or disabled.”
Drake said media bias was one reason Americans haven’t been better informed. For example, he said, “There has been an uptick (in the U.S.) in the number of elderly husbands killing their (disabled) wives, then killing themselves. In almost every case, the press has called this a ‘mercy’ killing. But studies looking into the details have shown no evidence at all the wife knew she was going to be killed, let alone asking for it.”