Assisted suicide measure appears headed for defeat

A divisive ballot initiative that would allow terminally ill patients to end their lives with medication prescribed by physicians appeared early Wednesday to be narrowly going down to defeat.

The ballot question has been the subject of a ferocious political battle. After a Boston Globe poll in September showed voters overwhelmingly supported the measure, support steadily eroded in the face of a last-minute effort by a diverse group of opponents, including religious leaders, antiabortion activists, and conservatives who aired their message in aggressive television advertisements and at church services. The concerted opposition campaign raised more than three times as much money as proponents.

At 2:21 a.m., with 93 percent of precincts reporting, the measure was trailing 51 percent to 49 percent. With about 2.75 million votes counted, the referendum was failing by a margin of 38,484 votes.

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Steve Crawford, a spokesman for Dignity 2012, an organization that supports the initiative, said early Wednesday the race was too close to call.

“This is the most profound ballot question Massachusetts has ever considered, and it’s not surprising it’s as close at is,” Crawford said.

Terrence C. Donilon, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston, which opposed the measure, said that with the vote difference so narrow, it would be premature to comment.

Massachusetts would have followed Oregon and Washington, which have passed similar initiatives to allow terminally ill patients to seek life-ending drugs from physicians. Donations to opposition groups, which raised nearly $2.6 million, came from far-flung Catholic dioceses, fueled in part by fear of a domino effect if the measure were to gain a foothold in Massachusetts.

Proponents of the measure raised about $700,000.

Voters said they formed their opinions about the controversial ballot initiative after careful consideration, informed by personal experiences with family members and by concerns about the safeguards written into the law.

North End resident Paul Santoro, 42, voted no.

“I’m actually in favor of assisted suicide, but not how this is written,” Santoro said, citing concerns about the proposal’s lack of required psychiatric evaluations and family notification and the lack of tracking for any leftover pills. Santoro has five children and worries about young people getting dangerous, untracked medications.

Alex Coon, 37, voting at the Dante Club in Somerville, said he voted for assisted suicide for a very personal reason.

“My grandmother was Dutch, and she always said, ‘When I get sick, take me home to Holland, because they’ll let me die,’ ” he said.

Massachusetts’ ballot measure was modeled after similar legislation passed by voters in Oregon in 1994. If it passed, it would allow terminally ill patients with less than six months to live to request medications to end their lives. Patients would have to request medication from physicians multiple times verbally and in writing, be deemed competent to make the decision, and personally administer the lethal dose.

Critics had said the measure was sloppily written and contained insufficient protection for vulnerable patients. Objections ranged from the difficulty of assessing how much time a patient has left to the failure to require a mental health screening by a specialist. Others opposed the initiative for moral reasons or because it was counter to the fundamental do-no-harm ethos for physicians.

Statistics kept by Oregon and Washington show that the fatal doses of medication are requested by a small number of patients and used by fewer.

Oregon’s law was mired in legal challenges for several years, but since 1997 when it was enacted, 935 people have requested prescriptions, and 596 have used them to end their life. In 2011 in Oregon, most of the 71 people who used the medication were white, well-educated, and suffering from cancer.

In Washington last year, 103 people requested the prescription, with 70 using it and 19 dying without taking the drugs. Of those who requested a prescription and died, nearly half were married, three-quarters had some college, and the overwhelming majority had cancer.