"Choice. Control. Dignity." Those appealing words headline the main information page for the proponents of Question 2, which would legalize assisted suicide in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts if passed on Nov. 6. The names of the two national organizations who have targeted Massachusetts for this legislation are also appealing -- "Compassion and Choices" and "Death with Dignity."
Who generally wouldn't want to support choice, control, compassion, and death with dignity? Of course, that is why they have chosen to use these words and names ("Compassion and Choices" used to be known as the "Hemlock Society"). Please avoid being misled. With your help, other Massachusetts voters can hear how Question 2 would bring fewer choices, less control and compassion, and more undignified deaths.
Let us examine some proponents' claims and respond.
(1) Proponents state on their website that "a Yes vote on Question 2 will allow terminally ill adults with six months or less to live to request a prescription for life-ending medication from their doctor. The law has 16 different safeguards, including approvals from two doctors and waiting periods. Doctor participation is voluntary and no doctor would ever be forced to prescribe against their will."
Responding to these claims: Doctors, including the Massachusetts Medical Society, state that terminal diagnoses of six months or less are often wrong and that people shouldn't make life-and-death decisions based on someone's best guess. In Oregon, most of the doctors who write assisted suicide prescriptions are not the patient's family physician; rather it is often a doctor affiliated with "Compassion and Choices," who might not know the patient well. Despite some safeguards, there are certainly not enough in Question 2 to protect the terminally ill person. There is no safeguard that requires doctors to refer patients to a psychiatrist or palliative care specialist before issuing the prescription. In fact, Question 2 allows any doctor -- even specialists like podiatrists or dermatologists with little experience in end of life care -- to determine if the patient is of sound mind. There is no safeguard that requires family members to be notified. There is no safeguard prohibiting all the witnesses to the request for lethal drugs to not be heirs to the patient's estate. There is no safeguard that prevents falsification of the death certificate and requires that it list that the patient died from assisted suicide. There is no safeguard to require the dispensing of the medication to take place in a hospital instead of a local pharmacy. There is no safeguard that tracks the lethal medication once it leaves the pharmacy. Question 2 also fails to give Massachusetts any resources or even the authority to investigate violations or provide oversight. Additionally, there is now an effort in Oregon to require doctors to make mandatory referrals if they choose not to participate in assisted suicide. There is also no explicit conscience protection for pharmacists in Question 2 who do not want to dispense medication that allows someone to end his or her life.
(2) Proponents claim on their website that "Patients dying of late stage cancer, and other terminal illnesses, can face weeks or months of extreme pain and suffering before death. Question 2 allows these patients to face death on their own terms." "This is a decision for terminally ill patients alone, not politicians, government, religious leaders, or anyone else. We all deserve the right to make this decision for ourselves if we are faced with the final stages of a terminal illness. This is the most personal of decisions and it should not be denied to a terminally ill patient who might find comfort in it."
Responding to these claims: While fear of suffering is often advanced as a reason to favor assisted suicide, statistics from Oregon show that few patients state that "unbearable physical suffering" is the reason for their request for an assisted suicide prescription. Rather, the request is more often motivated by a desire to control the timing and manner of death and by a fear of future circumstances. Palliative care and hospice experts indicate that advances in pain management can effectively control the physical pain of terminal illnesses. Proponents' arguments also are based on a radical autonomy that does not weigh the impact that a person's death, especially a death by suicide, has on family, friends and community. Each of our own experiences of dealing with the loss of loved ones clearly shows the interconnectedness of our lives. When proponents list all the groups they don't want involved in a terminally ill patient's decision, they specifically omit a person's family physician, family members or even one's spouse; yet, there is no requirement that any of those individuals are notified. Imagine the impact on a family member or a spouse who learns that a loved one was able to get this prescription without their knowledge or without an opportunity to express their love or to intervene.
(3) Proponents claim on their website that "Question 2 expands end-of-life care options for terminally ill patients." "Question 2 respects and upholds the integrity of the doctor-patient relationship." "Providing terminally ill patients the option to end one's life in a humane and dignified manner encourages honest conversations between patients and doctors about end-of-life care."
Responding to these claims: These arguments mislead voters to think that the "doctor" in the "doctor-patient relationship" is the patient's longstanding family physician. In Oregon, the evidence is that most often a doctor affiliated with "Compassion and Choices," who barely knows the patient or his history, is involved in assisted suicide -- not the family physician. The Massachusetts Medical Society has taken a clear position that doctors should not participate in assisted suicide. "Assisted suicide is not necessary to improve the quality of life at the end of life. Current law gives every patient the right to refuse lifesaving treatment, and to have adequate pain relief, including hospice and palliative sedation." Quoting Dr. Lynda Young, past president of the MMS, it says, "Allowing physicians to participate in assisted suicide would cause more harm than good. Physician assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician's role as healer. Instead of participating in assisted suicide, physicians must aggressively respond to the needs of patients at the end of life. Patients must continue to receive emotional support, comfort care, adequate pain control, respect for patient autonomy, and good communication."
(4) Proponents claim this is about "Choice" and "Control."