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OPINION: Why the Mass. Death with Dignity Act should appear on the November ballot

Posted by Alex Pearlman  January 4, 2012 05:29 PM

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syringe and needle.jpgBy Kristen Bahler

A highly contested ballot measure that will likely epitomize the statewide citizen vote in 2012 may be inching toward actualization. The Massachusetts Death with Dignity Act, a proposal that says terminally ill patients facing imminent death should be allowed to self-administer a lethal dose of medication (also known as physician-assisted suicide), has received more than 86,000 signatures and been sent to the office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth.

If the state legislature fails to act on the proposal, it will go on the November ballot. Between now and November, statewide advocacy groups, the Massachusetts Medical Society, and the Archdiocese of Boston will do everything in their power to make sure that doesn't happen. But here's why it should.

Physician-assisted suicide is not euthanasia. It's not Kevorkian, and it's certainly not a Palin-inspired "death panel," though I expect to hear comparisons. After two doctors have certified that an adult patient is within six months of death, is mentally competent, and is making the request on a voluntary basis, the proposal states, the patient can be prescribed a fatal dose of medication. There are several safeguards: The patient would have to ask for the prescription twice, waiting at least 15 days between the first and second request. Additionally, the doctor would have to wait 48 hours after receiving the second request to write the prescription, and doctors who object to the law would not be required to write a prescription at all.

Massachusetts isn't the first state to propose a Dignity Act, and it probably won't be the last. Modeled after similar (successful) proposals in Oregon and Washington, the Massachusetts Death with Dignity Act was written by Dignity 2012, a 15-person coalition that includes four Harvard Medical School professors, a former chaplain and director of Pastoral Care and Education at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and the executive and field directors of the Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union. At the helm is Marcia Angell, former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine and current Senior Lecturer at Harvard Medical School. Angell wrote about the death of her own father, Lester, in a 2002 issue of the Journal. A "lifelong conservative Republican," the younger Angell wrote, Lester committed suicide  at the age of 81, after a seven-year battle with prostate cancer. Had an act like this one been around at the time, she continued, "I have no doubt he would have chosen a less violent and lonely death."

Contact public officials. Click here to raise your voice on this issue.The opposition makes a valid argument. The main concern of opponents seems to be the following: Overburdened family members may bully terminally ill patients into a decision, or patients themselves will resent the responsibility that comes with their care and choose to end their life prematurely. That some are fearful of this possibility is understandable. But Dignity 2012 proponents say it's unfounded, citing the required psychological evaluation and various safeguards outlined in the proposal. Obviously, patients can choose to cancel the prescription at any time, they say; patients can also decide to not take it, like 38 percent of those who obtained the prescription in Oregon in 2010, or 41 percent of patients in Washington the same year. Because, once again...

This is not euthanasia. And it certainly shouldn't be considered a crime. The idea that a dying patient -- stripped of mobility, strength, and, as the proposal ascertains, dignity -- can choose to end his or her suffering on terms undesignated by disease is, quite simply, beautiful. And even if you disagree...

Voters should make that decision. Right now, the argument isn't whether physician-assisted suicide should be made legal; it's whether Massachusetts voters should get a say in the matter. Despite efforts to the contrary, we definitely, definitely should.

What do you think of the Death With Dignity Act?

Photo by Stephen Dyrgas (Flickr)

About Kristen -- Fresh out of graduate school, my allegiances are in fearless reporting and impeccable enterprise journalism. That said, follow me on Twitter @bostonpipeline!

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