By Jennifer Popik, J.D.
With a presidential election heating up, a little-publicized controversial euthanasia measure is set to appear on the ballot in the state of Massachusetts this fall. The result will no doubt have consequences for states across the nation.
Domestically, assisting suicide is currently legal in only two states—Oregon and Washington—and may have some legal basis in the state of Montana, due to a 2010 court decision. Abroad, euthanasia is permitted (in varying degrees) in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg.
Pro-euthanasia forces are hard at work all across Europe amidst a culture that is becoming more accepting of the practice. “Suicide tourism,” where foreigners come to Switzerland to die using assisted suicide, is at an all-time high. In nearby France, the newly elected President Francois Hollande professes strong support for assisted suicide for the terminally ill.
In the U.S., despite assisting suicide being legal in only a tiny handful of jurisdictions, the pro-euthanasia lobby is constantly trying to legalize the practice in states across the nation This year, the effort has focused on Vermont and Massachusetts.
When Vermont Governor Pete Shumlin (D) was elected in 2010, he proclaimed that one of his first goals was to sign a bill to legalize assisting suicide into law. Shumlin, a former member of the legislature, had been a longtime proponent of doctor-prescribed death. Contrary to the expectations of many, the Vermont Senate twice quashed efforts to legalize assisting suicide during the 2011–12 legislative session.
In 2011, no hearings were scheduled on the bill to legalize it. Instead, the “death with dignity” bill was held over until 2012. The Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on the measure in March, but declined to report it out to the floor.
On April 12, 2012, it was offered on the floor as an amendment to an unrelated bill. However, the Senate voted to defeat it by 18–11. This was likely a result of senators facing unexpectedly high pressure from a diverse coalition of groups working hard to ensure doctor-prescribed death did not become law in Vermont, and having little appetite to face the consequences of such a controversial vote.
At the forefront of this coalition was the disability rights community. The national disability rights group “Not Dead Yet” warned on its website, “Though often described as compassionate, legalized medical killing is really about a deadly double standard for people with severe disabilities, including both conditions that are labeled terminal and those that are not.” Vermont disability rights groups joined in speaking out against legalization.
Massachusetts November Referendum
With the effort stymied in Vermont, all eyes turned to the upcoming Massachusetts ballot initiative. The stage is set for “Dignity 2012,” comprised of the national organizations Compassion & Choices and the Death With Dignity Center, to face off against the Massachusetts Alliance Against Doctor-Prescribed Suicide, a diverse group of those from the legal, medical, and disability rights communities, among many.
Under Massachusetts law, once the required signatures are gathered, the legislature can vote to pass the measure before the proposed measure goes to a popular vote. In March, hearings were held on a bill based on the Oregon law.
More than 50 people testified against the bill, including representatives of the Massachusetts Medical Society and disability rights groups. The legislature declined to take action, which will send the measure to the ballot once another, smaller batch of signatures can be gathered.
The stakes could not be higher. The pro-euthanasia lobby deliberately targeted Massachusetts for several strategic reasons. They are hopeful that Massachusetts legalization would have a far-reaching influence. Massachusetts is home to the Harvard Medical School, which is currently ranked first among American research medical schools by U.S. News and World Report.
The New England Journal of Medicine, published by the Massachusetts Medical Society, is one of the oldest and most respected medical journals in the world. If doctor-prescribed death were to become standard medical practice in its home state, it might not be long before the notion that suicide is an appropriate response to illness would percolate through medical thought across the nation.
Nearly every proposal to legalize assisting suicide has been modeled on the law in effect in Oregon since 1997. The Oregon experience has exposed major weaknesses in supposed “safeguards.”
While statutory language claims to restrict doctor-prescribed suicide to only the competent, there is no requirement that the patient be given a psychiatric evaluation. Yet under Oregon’s law a physician with no previous relationship with a patient can write a lethal prescription without even an expert evaluation to see if the victim’s judgment is impaired by depression or other mental conditions – which is almost always the case. Further, there is no requirement for a witness at the time of death, so it is unknown if the person is still competent at the time she or he ingests the lethal prescription.
Legalization of assisting the suicides of purportedly competent patients who, in theory, consent to being killed has ramifications for patients unable to speak for themselves who have never expressed a desire to be killed. Massachusetts is among the states whose highest courts have ruled that if competent people have a right, incompetent people must be “given” the same “right.” Consequently, a “surrogate” could direct doctor-prescribed death for those unable to make decisions for themselves, such as patients with advanced Alzheimer’s disease.
The pro-euthanasia lobby often makes the case for doctor-prescribed death as a response to the problem of pain. Even overlooking the troubling notion that it is a satisfactory “solution” to kill the person to whom the problem happens, the experience with Oregon’s law shows how inaccurate the pain argument is.
In Oregon, there have been several almost decade-long studies conducted to determine the motivation of those committing suicide with lethal drugs prescribed in accordance with the law. Shockingly, not one person has requested suicide because he or she was in pain. Instead, the studies show the predominant motive has been fear of becoming a burden. In fact, modern medicine has the ability to control pain—and the real solution is to have physicians and other health care personnel better trained in keeping up with cutting-edge techniques for alleviating pain.
With so much on the line in Massachusetts, can the state afford to legalize this dangerous practice of turning doctors from healers into those who prescribe death to their most vulnerable patients? The vote in Massachusetts on doctor-prescribed death will be one of the most consequential votes in America this November.
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