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Question 2: Mass. Votes ‘Death with Dignity’

Mass. Sec. of State

Massachusetts will vote on whether to allow physicians to prescribe life-ending drugs to terminally ill patients. Question 2 is known as “Death with Dignity,” and the measure will likely pass, even with strong opposition from outspoken patients, prominent physicians and the Roman Catholic Church.

Patient concerns

“As a good pro-choice liberal, I ought to support the effort. But as a lifelong disabled person, I cannot,” writes Ben Mattlin for The New York Times Op-Ed page.

Author of Miracle Boy Grows Up: How the Disability Rights Revolution Saved My Sanity, Mattlin suffers from spinal muscular atrophy and fears that if Question 2 passes, it will allow for abuse against the elderly and disabled.

“There’s been scant evidence of abuse so far in Oregon, Washington and Montana, the three states where physician-assisted death is already legal, but abuse — whether spousal, child or elder — is notoriously underreported,” he writes. “What’s more, Massachusetts registered nearly 20,000 cases of elder abuse in 2010 alone.” 

The initiative, referred to as “Prescribing Medication to End Life,” has a number of restrictions. Patients would have to be determined capable of making and communicating their health care decisions and have at most six months to live. Patients must also express a wish to die on two occasions, 15 days apart. A physician would be required to discuss the option of palliative care.

Mattlin raises the concern of coercion being a threat to the disabled and elderly. Having experienced a life in which eating, breathing and growing brought him pain, he sympathizes with those who may be one ‘talk’ away from ending life.

He writes: “My problem, ultimately, is this: I’ve lived so close to death for so long that I know how thin and porous the border between coercion and free choice is, how easy it is for someone to inadvertently influence you to feel devalued and hopeless — to pressure you ever so slightly but decidedly into being ‘reasonable,’ to unburdening others, to ‘letting go.’ ”

Physician concerns

Ezekiel J. Emanuel, former White House adviser, oncologist and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, stated his concerns about “Death with Dignity” in an Op-Ed for The New York Times.

Ezekiel asserts that individuals who choose assisted suicide are not motivated by pain, so logically “Death with Dignity” should be reconsidered as a compassionate act.

“Only 22 percent of patients who died between 1998 and 2009 by assisted suicide … were in pain or afraid of being in pain,” he writes. “Patients themselves say that the primary motive is not to escape physical pain but psychological distress; the main drivers are depression, hopelessness and fear of loss of autonomy and control.”

His advice: focus on the dying process and not death itself.

“Instead of attempting to legalize physician-assisted suicide, we should focus our energies on what really matters: improving care for the dying.”

Earlier this year, Dr. Barbara Rockett, the former president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, criticized the initiative in The Boston Globe: “We as physicians must avoid the so-called slippery slope of attempting to save money by doing less for our patients rather than rendering the proper care to them. To substitute physician-assisted suicide for care represents an abandonment of the patient by the physician.”

Moral concerns from Roman Catholics

The Roman Catholic Church, the largest religious tradition in Massachusetts, also remains a vocal opponent to “Death with Dignity.” Tradition maintains that human life is sacred from conception to death; therefore, hastening death is a mortal sin.

The Globe’s Chelsea Conaboy reports, “Catholic archdioceses from across the country contributed tens of thousands of dollars to the Committee Against Physician Assisted Suicide, which raised $900,550 from late April to September.”

According to Boston’s NBC affiliate NECN, Catholics are organizing church by church against “Death with Dignity.” For example, St. Jerome Parish in Weymouth, Mass. is holding workshops encouraging parishioners to vote “no” on the initiative.

Question 2 likely to pass

According to Pew Research, 43 percent of Massachusetts residents identify as Catholics. Massachusetts has a larger percentage of Catholics than any other state.

The high percentage of Catholics is not, however, translating into statewide opposition to Question 2. A Suffolk University poll of likely voters shows 64 percent would vote “yes” and only 27 percent would vote “no.”

Read the full petition here.