Massachusetts Medical Society Opposes Assisted Suicide

State   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Dec 5, 2011   |   12:57PM   |   Boston, MA

As Massachusetts voters consider the possibility of going to the polls to vote for a measure that would make the state the third to legalize assisted suicide, the Massachusetts Medical Society’s House of Delegates voted to retain its position against it.

At a weekend vote at its Interim Meeting, the Massachusetts Medical Society voted 178 to 56 to retain the Society’s long-standing opposition to physician assisted suicide. The doctors group unanimously passed additional language endorsing quality end-of-life care.

The vote came after some physicians began efforts to remove the statement opposing assisted suicide t the Annual Meeting last May. Proponents of the change cited the upcoming 2012 ballot question to legalize physician assisted suicide, which some call “doctor prescribed suicide”, as a reason to look at the issue.

The Massachusetts Medical Society has more than 23,000 members and Lynda Young, M.D., president of the Society, responded to the vote.

“Physicians of our Society have clearly declared that physician-assisted suicide  is inconsistent with the physician’s role as healer and health care provider. At the same time we recognize the importance of patient dignity and the critical role that physicians have in end-of-life care,” she said.

Dr. Young said the policy goes beyond a single statement of opposition to physician-assisted suicide to include “support for patient dignity and the alleviation of pain and suffering at the end of life.” Additionally, it includes the Society’s commitment to “provide physicians treating terminally-ill patients with the ethical, medical, social, and legal education, training, and resources to enable them to contribute to the comfort and dignity of the patient and the patient’s family.”

Anne Fox of Massachusetts Citizens for Life says the people of Massachusetts need to understand the position doctors take opposing assisted suicide.

“Informal public opinion polls are currently at odds with the MMS results. The MMS voted by more than ¾ to oppose physician assisted suicide. The general public right now seems to support the concept,” she told LifeNews. “The difference is probably explained by the fact that doctors are more familiar with end-of-life issues and have been thinking about them for longer. This indicates that, as the opponents of the ballot question are able to educate the public, support for PAS/DPS will dwindle.”

She called the vote “huge” news for efforts to oppose the ballot measure and said, “The Massachusetts Alliance Against Doctor Prescribed Death will be able to trumpet this vote far and wide.”

Attorney General Martha Coakley certified the assisted suicide measurein September and backers now must obtain the signatures of 68,911 state residents by mid-November in order to move ahead to the next step. If they receive enough signatures, members of the state legislature can decide whether or not to pass any of them as legislation. Those state measure that do not receive legislative approval must obtain another 11,485 signatures in order to qualify for the 2012 election.

The so-called Massachusetts Death with Dignity Act would allow doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to patients with less than six months to live — officially making Massachusetts the third state, following Oregon and Washington, to legalize assisted suicide.

Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley of Boston is urging Catholic voters in Massachusetts to reject a statewide  initiative would promote assisted suicide in the Bay State.

O’Malley weighed in, according to the Boston Pilot newspaper, during a homily given at the annual “White Mass” held Oct. 29 at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross for Catholic physicians and medical students:

“Physician assisted suicide has been resisted in many states, but this new Hemlock Society sees Massachusetts as low hanging fruit. We must show them that that fruit is a prickly pear,” said Cardinal O’Malley, referring to the organization behind the initiative.

The cardinal cited a recent talk at Harvard Medical School by Kathryn Tucker, the legal affairs director of Compassion and Choices — a leading advocacy group for physician assisted suicide.

The cardinal said that in her talk Tucker stressed the importance of objecting to the term physician assisted suicide, instead calling it “aid in dying.”

He said that Tucker advocated a standard medical procedure where a “competent and reasonable” person has a right to help in dying that includes sedation, palliative care, removal of food and water and “drugs that hasten or bring about death.”

According to the cardinal, Tucker would also like depression to be redefined, so it would not be “an obstacle to prescribing lethal drugs” and “would like to marginalize the influence of organizations who represent persons with disabilities, because they oppose physician assisted suicide.”

Compassion and Choices wants to create a legal environment in which doctors can prescribe lethal drugs without fearing prosecution, while also intimidating institutions who do not offer “the full range of end of life options” with the fear of legal and financial reprisals, the cardinal said.

The state’s Catholic bishops previously indicated their opposition to the measure.

“This Initiative Petition is a first step in Massachusetts toward legalizing physician-assisted suicide, effectively authorizing the killing of human beings prior to their natural death,” the conference wrote. “The Roman Catholic Bishops of Massachusetts stand firm in the belief that a compassionate society should work to prevent suicide, which is always a terrible tragedy, no matter what form it may take.”

They added a 1995 statement, saying, “The Roman Catholic Bishops in Massachusetts are strongly opposed to the legalization of assisted suicide because it is contrary to the good of persons and contrary to the common good of this State. For once a society allows one individual to take the life of another based on their private standards of what constitutes a life worth living, even when there is mutual agreement, there can be no safe or sure way to contain its possible consequences.”

Kristian Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, has said that his group will also oppose the plan.

“It’s a further erosion of the sanctity of life in our commonwealth,” he added. “You talk about the slippery slope; this is going off the cliff — morally.”

And Massachusetts Citizens for Life, a statewide pro-life group, also opposes it.

“Polls show that, until they are educated, people fall hook, line and sinker for the death rhetoric. When you read their petition, you will see it is like a siren song,” said Anne Fox, MCFL’s president.

Every year the number of people who kill themselves under the Oregon first-in-the-nation law allows assisted suicide increases and the most recent report containing 2010 figures proved to be no exception.

The Oregon Public Health Division released the 2010 “Death With Dignity” report and it found 59 reported deaths from the 96 lethal prescriptions that were written with an additional six deaths from lethal prescriptions written in previous years. With the exception of 2009, the number of people dying has gone up every year as has the number of lethal prescriptions written.

Of the 65 patients who died under the law in 2010, most (70.8%) were over age 65 years of age, all were white, well‐educated and had cancer. Almost al of them died at home and were receiving hospice care at the time of their suicide. About one-third were on Medicare at the time.

Since the law was passed in 1997, 525 patients have died from ingesting the lethal cocktail of federally-controlled drugs.

Alex Schadenberg of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition says the report shows people continue to die without dignity.

“The Oregon stats continue to indicate that elder abuse is likely. Those who died by assisted suicide indicated that 61 (93.8%) of the people felt a loss of autonomy, 61 (93.8%) felt a decreasing ability to participate in activities, while 51 (78.5%) of the people felt that they had lost dignity,” he explained.

In addition, just one of the patients was referred for psychiatric or psychological evaluation prior to the suicide — indicating patients may be pushed into suicide without proper mental health care beforehand.