Prior to his death at age 45 in 1995, Robert Powell was the vice-president of the National Right to Life Committee and an outspoken advocate for the rights of the unborn and for persons with disabilities. Robert was appointed to the White House Conference on Families and attended the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.
One of Robert's lifetime goals was to work to see attitudes towards persons with disabilities improved. He strongly felt that society should work toward eliminating the barriers people with disabilities face-not by eliminating the people themselves through physician-assisted suicide or other means. His work and life helped to advance his longterm goal of seeing that all people, including those with diabilities, were seen as equals and treated as such.
Physician-assisted suicide is contrary to the concept of equality for everyone. Very often the group most targeted by physician-assisted suicide is the disabled community because the "quality of life" of its members is deemed to be "poor" by people outside the community. Robert once said,
As a disabled person, I enjoy life just as much as anybody else does. I can do things that just about anybody else can do. It is a matter of [how you] perceive "quality of life." You ask one person about his definition of quality of life and he may give you one opinion, ask a disabled person his opinion of "quality of life" and you'll certainly get another.
Suggesting that people can be "helped" by offering them physician-assisted suicide destroys the very concept of equality and disability rights.
Robert was 5 months old when his parents noticed his inability to bear weight on his legs. Diagnostic x-rays showed a mass in Robert's chest. The surgery that followed revealed that the cancerous tumor in his chest had consumed his right lung and had become attached to his spinal cord causing permanent parapalegia.
In an autobiographical article, Robert wrote, "[The doctors] told my parents, 'he is not going to live, we're not going to do anything. Just take him home to die.' Robert's parents refused to allow their son to die and began searching for a physician to treat him. While others felt his life was not worth saving, a physician who was himself parapalegic agreed to treat Robert with then-experimental radiation therapy.
Robert had thirty radiation treatments in one month. Other physicians predicted Robert would not live six months. This continued for years; time after time physicians predicted Robert would not live to see his next birthday he proved them wrong.
Patients With Disabilities Deserve Equal Treatment
Robert's medical history made him realize that when dealing with medicine and doctors, an individual patient has to be able to make his own decisions in favor of receiving healthcare. Robert felt outraged by the prevalent attitude held by many inside and outside the medical community today. He once said, "What concerns me now is this attitude that is growing that it is better to be dead than disabled. Even though [someone] may have some type of serious disability-there is always chance for some type of hope." So many physicians and hospitals are more interested in "quality of life" issues instead of helping people to live with a disability. If two patients are being treated for depression and both express a wish to die but one is a quadraplegic, society may feel it was "compassionate" to have someone "help" the person with quadrapiegia die. On the other hand, society would be outraged if the physically healthy person were "helped" to die.
Some physicians who had seen Robert felt he would be better off dead. He was denied treatment several times. Robert recounted a 8:00 p.m. trauma room visit as follows:
I had a fever, a swollen belly and (other problems). Their suggestion was to take two Tylenol and go home.
My physician refused to come to the emergency room to see me. Because of the persistence of my sister, who is a registered nurse, and other pro-life family members who were on hand, I was admitted to the hospital. At 11:00 p.m. they were drawing fluid off my lungs just to allow me to breath. The treatment I received in the trauma center was not the treatment a nondisabled person would have received. Because of the aggressiveness of my family, I received the appropriate care.
Robert's experience occurred a few years ago... what would he have experienced if assisted suicide were legalized. Robert's pro-life outlook was not surprising. Robert's response to those who urged him to forgo treatment was, "When it comes to life or death, I choose life."
National Right To Life Committee
Suite 500, 419 7th Street, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20004-2293
(202) 626-880O (FAX) 737-9189 or 347-5907 http://www.nrlc.org
Contact: Michele Arocha Allen