Fifth Ward resident Larry Biondi (pink shirt) and other members of the disabilities community raised concerns about a medical-aid-in-dying resolution, dying that community could be particularly vulnerable. RoundTable photo

The group seeking a City resolution in support of the State’s enacting a medical-aid-in-dying law has dropped its request, after receiving mixed support from aldermen and running into strong opposition from segments of the disability community.

Fay Clayton, co-founder and leader of Evanston’s action team for Compassion & Choice, the group supporting the resolution, told aldermen at the Feb. 10 City Council meeting that the group was requesting the proposal be withdrawn from the Council’s agenda for now.

“It appears that some members on our Council have not had an adequate opportunity to engage in a conversation with their constituents about this essential end-of-life issue,” she said during public testimony. “I have been asked by several members of the City Council to give the Evanston community more time to discuss an understanding.”

Ms. Clayton said the additional time will also allow the group’s strong supporters “to do what they have offered to do, which is to write a letter to our representatives and senators in Springfield, telling them that they personally support state legislation that will authorize this vital option.”

 Medical aid in dying is a medical practice currently authorized in nine states, in which “a terminally ill, mentally capable adult with six months or less to live can request a prescription for medication from his or her physician that the patient may choose to self-ingest for a peaceful death,” group supporters said in their proposal.

The practice is built on the premise that “terminally ill patients may undergo pain, suffering, and an irreversible reduction in their quality of life in their final days, and only the patient can determine whether his or her suffering is unbearable,” the resolution language said.

 Members of the City Council’s Human Services Committee had balked at supporting the request at their Feb. 3 meeting, noting strong arguments on both sides of the issue and moving the resolution to the full Council without a recommendation.

Leading off citizen comment at the Feb. 10 City Council meeting, Ms. Clayton suggested that opponents of the practice were making “the same slippery slope arguments” that were made before the first medical-aid-in-dying law was passed in Oregon.

“But 22 years of experience in Oregon proves that their fears are unfounded. There have been no substantiated instances of misuse, and that’s because of the safeguards,” she argued. “A person seeking medical aid in dying must be an adult, must be terminally ill, which means they have six months or less to live,” she said.

Further, “they must be mentally capable of making a health-care decision – their decision must be informed,” she said. “Their attending doctors can advise them on other life options, including hospice.  The doctor has to tell the patient they can change their mind at any time.”

Another speaker, Eric Parker, an elder law attorney who said he represents many Evanston residents, said his job often requires him to counsel people who are terminally ill and dying.

“Every week when I sit down to discuss power of attorney living wills and other advanced directives with my clients, quite a few of them asked me about medical aid and dying – the number increasing each year,” he said. “The people who asked me about this didn’t come from any one demographic group, or the elderly, or the young, the religious, the wealthy, the not wealthy, the healthy and the sick. The only thing they have in common is that if they become terminally ill they want the option of a peaceful death.”

But a number of the 30 others signed up to speak at the meeting related concerns, many of them members of the disability community.

One, Heather Armstrong, told aldermen she had a big concern “about this, a practice where you can pull the plug without the person’s knowledge and with family that doesn’t care about their other family members that are dying. They only care about what they want. They’re going to push a person with a disability into committing suicide or telling the doctor to take them off of life support.”

Larry Biondi, a Fifth Ward resident who also testified at the Feb. 3 Human Services Committee meeting, cited a report released by the National Council on Disabilities, “finding the safeguards are ineffective and oversight of abuse and mistakes is absent.”

“Suicide is legal – it’s the cheapest treatment available and an attractive option in our profit-driven health-care system,” he argued.

Both the American Medical Association and American College of Physicians as well as many state legislatures have repeatedly rejected such proposals, he noted.

Jill Gardner, a clinical psychologist and Fourth Ward resident, stressed medical aid in dying is not suicide, nor assisted suicide.

“Suicide is an act that is made by people who choose to die rather than choosing to live,” she said. “The people we’re talking about no longer have that choice; they will die.  They cannot choose to live at a certain point.”

As for the testimony against, “you’re hearing facts, you’re hearing studies – we have equal studies,” she told aldermen. “There’s no substantiated case where this abuse has taken place. I think these are legitimate concerns, but they’re fears. So what I would say is, ‘Let’s make a decision based on facts, not fears.’ I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath.”

Another speaker, David Melton, a resident of the Third Ward, said he also had heard peoples’ concerns. “But I say to them what they are saying to us. Many of them have said, ‘Don’t force me to do something that I don’t want to do.’  Absolutely. But should I ever find myself facing a fatal diagnosis I will want that same autonomy.”

The Rev. Kevin McCray, a Fourth Ward resident and pastor at Saint Mary’s Parish in Evanston, expressed concern about the proposed resolution, and the possibility that it will be used “against populations that have always been disproportionately affected by issues of life, including populations of color, populations of other abilities, populations of lower social, educational and economic realities – and even populations of gender and age have borne the brunt of this legislation.”

After these comments, aldermen officially removed the item from their agenda. Technically, because the item had failed to receive backing from the Council’s Human Services Committee, the item was a ‘’nullity,” and not an item for action anyway, pointed out Alderman Donald Wilson ,4th Ward.

As for next steps, Ms. Clayton maintained the discussion locally, though not going forward, provided momentum for the group’s movement.

 “Obviously we have a bunch of strong supporters who will write letters to the state General Assembly, and now we have others who hate resolutions – they don’t want a resolution of a non-binding type – but they will support medical-aid-in-dying in general.”

She said the group will also continue the discussion locally.

 “We’re so excited this conversation has begun. So many people have engaged,” she said.


Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.