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Marilyn Golden is not what many people picture when they think of the fight against physician-assisted suicide – but maybe she should be. The Berkeley-based activist boasts of shaking hands with President Obama, lauds “great champions of disability rights” like Senators Tom Harkin and Ted Kennedy, and is concerned with “environmental justice.” But she also encourages liberals and progressives to break out of their ideological straight-jackets on the issue of physician-assisted suicide.

In a recent interview, Golden discussed her 25-year history with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, including her role promoting the Americans with Disabilities Act and stronger measures to assure that transportation and public accommodations are accessible. Golden told J Weekly, a publication covering the Jewish community in the San Francisco area, that she opposes physician-assisted suicide:

Because of direct threats to the disability community, but also because it’s a danger to everyone. People often think, “This is the right position for a liberal to take.” But it turns out that where assisted suicide is legal, some people will lose their lives without their consent through mistakes and abuse. No safeguards have ever been enacted or even proposed that can prevent an outcome that can never be undone.

People often support it because they’re concerned about end of life pain, but, in fact, anybody dying in pain can avail themselves of something that’s already legal: palliative sedation.[1]

The disability community is very much at risk — as our lives are not deemed to be as valuable as others — but we’re not alone in the risk. There’s also significant risk of elder abuse. An heir or an abusive caregiver can steer the person toward assisted suicide, pick up the lethal dose, and, in the end, even administer it to them because no witness is required at the death.

Liberalism, I had always been told, is supposed to care about the marginalized, the forgotten, and the powerless. Yet there are few power differentials as great as that between a seriously ill person, perhaps comatose, and a team of (not-always benign) relatives, caregivers, and doctors who hold the keys of life and death in their hands. Liberals, conservatives, and independents should agree that the potential to abuse that power and inflict permanent damage upon those considered “unworthy of life” should never be allowed in the United States.

Bravo to Golden for raising the issue of human dignity in a reflexively hostile atmosphere like San Francisco. Whatever differences we might have on other topics, people of all political persuasions should be able to unite around the imperative to protect all human life, and especially the most vulnerable, from being demeaned or taken because others deem it inconvenient.


1. Palliative sedation, although sometimes controversial, can be appropriate if practised according to ethical norms. Alex Schadenberg of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition has told LifeSiteNews, “Even a long-term sedation can be ethical as long as the person is not being dehydrated to death. A good palliative care physician won't use the technique very often.”

The issue, ethicists say, is to assure that medication levels are appropriate for pain relief but not to hasten the patient's demise. A 1992 study found that terminally ill patients who received such treatment lived longer than those who did not. “In important ways, assisted suicide and good palliative care are not only distinct—they are radically opposed to each other,” Richard Doerflinger wrote for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.