Massachusetts to vote on physician-assisted suicide

On Nov. 6, Massachusetts voters will vote whether or not to allow physician-assisted suicide. The measure would allow terminally ill people with six months or less to live to request lethal doses of medication.

The Massachusetts measure, Question 2, is modeled after Oregon's Death With Dignity Act. If it passes, Massachusetts would become the third state, after Oregon and Washington, to allow doctors to assist suicide. The Massachusetts ballot initiative is considered a litmus test for assisted suicide legislation on the East Coast. Proponents of the law include patients' rights groups and AIDS advocates. The proponents argue that patients should have a right to end their own life if they are terminally ill. “The greatest human freedom is to live, and die, according to one’s beliefs,” Yes2Dignity said on its website.

"Question 2 allows these patients to face death on their own terms - often in their own homes - with the opportunity to say goodbye to loved ones while they are still aware and competent," the organization said.

Proponents said that there are enough safeguards in place to allow that the law is not abused. A patient would have to get approval from two different doctors and be evaluated to make sure the patient is mentally competent. The patient would go through several waiting periods, and he or she must make three separate requests, two oral and one written.

The primary opponents of the law are religious groups and advocates for the disabled. They said that there are too many loopholes and the law could lead to abuse, and also that a six-month life expectancy is not always accurate.

"Eligibility is based on a six-month life expectancy. But doctors agree these estimates are often wrong. Individuals outlive their prognoses by months or even years. Question 2 will lead people to give up on treatment and lose good years of their lives... And nothing in Question 2 will protect patients when there are pressures, whether financial or emotional, which distort patient choice," the group said on its website.

Several medical groups oppose the law— including the American Medical Association, or AMA— agree with this statement. The AMA said that it "strongly opposes any bill to legalize physician-assisted suicide" because the practice is "fundamentally inconsistent with the physician's role as healer."

From the No on 2 website

The Massachusetts Medical Society is also opposed to the bill. “Allowing physicians to participate in assisted suicide would cause more harm than good,” Lynda M. Young, a doctor and the society’s president, told the Massachusetts legislature this year. “Physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer," she said.

Opponents of the law have outraised proponents by about four times. Supporters of the law have raised around $500,000, while opponents have raised more than $2 million. Boston's Cardinal, Sean O'Malley encouraged voters to oppose the measure. He said assisted suicide is a "slippery slope" and hasn't worked well in other states.

According to Boston.com, in Washington, 103 people requested the medication and 71 used it in 2011. In Oregon, 114 people received the medication and 70 used it.

In Oregon, the primary reasons for requesting the medication are:

  • loss of autonomy
  • dignity
  • decreased ability to engage in activities that make life enjoyable.

Most polling shows that the bill is likely to pass. A Suffolk University/7 NEWS poll conducted in September found that 64 percent of Massachusetts voters support legalization.

Photo courtesy of e-MagineArt.com/Flickr

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