Massachusetts: Legislature to Hear Bill for Assisted Suicide

State   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Mar 5, 2012   |   2:45PM   |   Boston, MA

The organization behind an initiative in Massachusetts to make the state the next to legalize assisted suicide has collected the required signatures to place their initiative petition on the ballot next November.

In December, Dignity 2012 submitted 79,626 certified signatures to the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office, in excess of the 68,911 signatures required to place an initiative on the state ballot. As part of the process, the state legislature will hold a hearing on the question, H 3884, tomorrow.

With backers collecting enough signatures, members of the state legislature can decide whether or not to pass any of them as legislation. Those state measures that do not receive legislative approval must obtain another 11,485 signatures in order to qualify for the 2012 election.

“The hearing gives us a chance to organize, prepare our arguments for testimony, convince some legislators, and hear what the proponents think are their best arguments,” says Anne Fox, the president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, one of the many organizations working to defeat the ballot proposal.

Robin Loughman, chair of the Massachusetts Alliance Against Doctor Prescribed Suicide, says he expects there to be significantly strong testimony against the measure.

The Massachusetts Family Institute is also against the measure and says, “Physician Assisted Suicide is nothing more that doctor prescribed death. It is unwanted and unnecessary since every patient has the right to excellent palliative care and to refuse arti­ficially prolonged life.  Physician Assisted Suicide invites all types of abuse, especially given the ­financial incentive for premature deaths and the potential for pressure and coercion, by both individuals who would gain from the patient’s demise and government controlled healthcare.”

In December, 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 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.”

Meanwhile, the Catholic Bishops of Massachusetts came out strongly against the proposed Death with Dignity Act, saying that it “effectively authorizes the killing of human beings prior to their natural death,” and that “a compassionate society should work to prevent suicide, which is always a terrible tragedy, no matter what form it may take.”

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.”

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.”

Under the assisted suicide measure, terminally-ill adults with six months or less to live would be able to receive and self-administer a prescription for life-ending medication. To qualify, a patient would have to be an adult resident of Massachusetts who is “medically determined to be mentally capable of making and communicating health care decisions; has been diagnosed by attending and consult physicians as having an incurable, irreversible disease that will, within reasonable medical judgment, cause death within six months; and voluntarily expresses a wish to die and has made an informed decision.”

Doctors would be required to inform patients about other end-of-life care options, including palliative care, pain management, and hospice care. Two physicians must verify the mental competence of the terminally ill patient and the voluntary nature of the request, and three requests must be made by the patient for the prescription: two oral and one written. The Act would also allow the patient to change his or her mind at any time. No person would be civilly or criminally liable or subject to professional discipline for actions that comply with the law.

Oregon and Washington voters approved their laws legalizing assisted suicide in 1994 and 2008 respectively.

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.