Opponents hope Northeast states will resist moves to assisted suicide

BOSTON (CNS) — Opponents of legislation that would legalize physician-assisted suicide in Massachusetts hope the commonwealth will follow Vermont’s lead and kill the measure.

By an 18-11 vote April 12, Vermont senators defeated a proposal to legalize assisted suicide in the state.

“We’re obviously elated that the Senate in Vermont did the right thing, not only to defeat this onerous bill but also to defeat the political shenanigans that were going on to try to get this bill passed. The whole thing was politics at its worst,” said Kristian Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute.

First introduced in 2011, Vermont’s Patient Choice and Control at End of Life legislation failed to make it out of committee by the 2012 legislative deadline. In what Mineau described as a “last-ditch, desperate effort,” the Health and Welfare Committee attached the bill to an anti-tanning bill. That bill was defeated after two hours of debate about doctor-prescribed death.

Mineau warned that the battle in Massachusetts will be tougher than the one in Vermont since the measure will almost certainly appear on the November ballot in Massachusetts. Polls have shown slight support of the bill.

In March, Public Policy Polling released results that showed 43 percent of Massachusetts voters are in favor, while 37 percent are opposed. A Boston Magazine article titled “Massachusetts Voters Want Their Parents to Die with Dignity” highlighted the fact that 44 percent of those 65 and older oppose the measure, while their children, those aged 46 to 65, “were the highest segment in favor with 49 percent supporting the bill.”

The legislation, called the Death with Dignity Act, is a citizens’ initiative petition that has garnered more than the required number of signatures. Proponents say the measure would give patients greater peace of mind, choice and control in their final days of life.

The legislation permits individuals who are given six months or fewer to live to receive life-ending drugs. The law would require that two doctors verify the mental competence of patients and sets a 15-day waiting period between the request for and writing of the prescription.

If the legislature fails to act on the bill by May 2, proponents would need to gather nearly 11,500 certified signatures to put the measure before voters in November.

More than 50 opponents of physician-assisted suicide testified at a committee hearing at the statehouse March 6. They said the legislation lacks safeguards and could lead to elder abuse. They warned that the life expectancy estimates of terminally ill patients are often incorrect.

In testimony submitted to the committee, James F. Driscoll, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the public policy arm for the four bishops of the commonwealth, said doctor-prescribed death contradicts the fundamental right to life and violates a physician’s duty to do no harm.

Those who request death are vulnerable and need care that supports them physically, emotionally and spiritually. Killing them is a form of neglect, he added.

“Terminally ill, dying patients do not need the so-called compassion that supports the patient in the false idea that he or she is better off dead,” he said. “It must never be forgotten that all suicide is a tragedy and we are all called to comfort the sick, not to help them end their lives.”

End-of-life care should address pain management and not require treatments that are “ineffective or unduly burdensome.” It should also allow the dying to devote themselves to the unfinished business of their lives in order for them to make peace with God, their loved ones and themselves. “No one should dismiss this time as meaningless,” said the testimony submitted on behalf of the bishops.

Peter McNulty, the conference’s associate director for policy and research, told The Anchor, Fall River diocesan newspaper, that the bishops hope the Massachusetts measure will go the way of the Vermont bill.

“It is incredibly important that we hold the line in the Northeast. Vermont has done a great job of doing that,” he said. “The Northeast is really seen as a gateway to the rest of the country. We are an epicenter for medical thought and medical expertise. If one of the Northeast states falls, I think it’s a signal to the rest of the country that we’re ripe for this sort of dangerous legislation to come through.”

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— By Christine M. Williams Catholic News Service, who writes for The Anchor in Fall River and other Massachusetts Catholic newspapers.