Ballot question is a matter of life-or-death

Passions rise, divide over assisted suicide bill

The controversial ballot referendum on physician-assisted suicide has prompted a flurry of late-breaking, heart-wrenching TV ads and fierce opposition from a broad coalition of religious, conservative, and antiabortion activists across the country who have dramatically outraised proponents.

Opponents, fearing that passage in Massachusetts would advance the movement nationally, have poured nearly $2.6 million into efforts to defeat it, with contributions coming from Catholic dioceses as far away as Minnesota, Kansas, and even the US Virgin Islands. And Catholic colleges have taken the extraordinary step of reaching out to their tens of thousands of alumni to warn them against the ballot question.

“Everyone who is involved in this believes that if it passes in Massachusetts, it’s a gateway to the rest of the country,” said Terrence C. Donilon, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

But proponents, including doctors like Marcia Angell, a Harvard Medical School senior lecturer and former editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, said it is a matter of patient choice. “I don’t see that anybody has the right to deny a desperately suffering patient that option if he or she wants to take it,” she said.

Modeled on the law in place in Oregon for 15 years, the “death with dignity” measure would allow doctors to prescribe pills for patients with up to six months to live to end their lives. If approved, the referendum would make Massachusetts the third state where voters embraced physician-
assisted dying.

Ads describing the measure have flooded the airwaves in recent weeks, confronting voters with an emotional decision they will be asked to make on Election Day.

In one ad, a pharmacist dumps out the 100 red pills the patient would consume alone, without a doctor present, to end his life. In another less-
circulated spot that favors the ballot question, the mother and husband of a cancer patient describe suffering that could have been alleviated through assisted suicide.

As with so many issues this election season, the complicated question has also created a new front in the ongoing battle between the extreme left and the far right, with figureheads of both camps leading the fight in the final days.

US Representative Barney Frank, the outspoken gay liberal congressman long demonized by conservatives, pointed to some of those who have enlisted in the opposition, to paint the movement as extremist.

“Question Two is a personal choice, and we deserve to have a fair and meaningful dialogue, not a smear campaign loaded with scare tactics and funded by radical antigay, antichoice hate groups,” Frank wrote in a fund-raising letter for the ballot question last month.

But another well-known Massachusetts Democrat, Vicki Kennedy, the widow of the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, has aligned herself with the opposition, citing her husband’s experience with cancer. Given only two to four months to live, the senator instead survived 15 months, she wrote in an opinion piece in the Cape Cod Times.