Embracing 'Death With Dignity Act'
I am certainly going to vote for Death With Dignity Act on this year's ballot. I recommend that you do as well. We should have the right to end our own lives when things are hopeless. The state of Oregon has such a law and according to the reports I have read, it works well. We allow veterinarians to humanely help our pets when it is determined that they can't go on, yet we are prohibited from allowing ourselves the same mercy when there is no hope for recovery from a terrible illness. I believe that some medical professionals have been assisting patients with suicide for years.
As stipulated by the Massachusetts ballot proposition, physician-assisted suicide won't be as easy as picking up the phone and making a request. There are many conditions which must be met -- if anything, there are too many hurdles. The patient has to request the medication that will end his or her life on two separate occasions and will only be able to request the relief if they have certain conditions that are "incurable and irreversible" and will cause death within six months. When the patient makes the request for the medication, he will be asked whether or not he wishes to change his mind.
Attending physicians will have to report the use of approved medications to the state; the patient would have to be an adult who is capable of making an informed decision; the patient would have to sign a form in front of two witnesses "one of whom is not a relative, a beneficiary of the patient's estate, or an owner, operator, or employee of a health care facility where the patient receives treatment or lives."
According to the pamphlet which you should have received from the Massachusetts Secretary of State, it would be up to the attending physician to make a diagnosis and then disclose that diagnosis, including the prognosis, to the patient. The doctor would also have to review the alternatives to physician-assisted suicide, including the hospice and palliative care options. The doctor would then have to refer the patient to another "consulting physician" and, if he or she suspects there might be underlying psychological issues, to a psychiatrist. Then, the patient's next of kin would have to be notified and the doctor would have to recommend that the patient ask another person to be with them when they were given the medication. The medication could not be mailed but would have to be dispensed directly to the patient. The law correctly stipulates that "no person would be civilly or criminally liable or subject to professional discipline for actions that comply with the law."
It is extraordinary that people who wished to end their own lives on their own terms have been made into criminals. Years ago, before we had appropriate abortion laws, it was not unusual for desperate women to be killed by back-room, non-medical, botched abortions. There are many ways for people to kill themselves. They can jump, they can shoot themselves, and they can cause other people to shoot them. This law is eminently sensible but there are so many requirements that I am afraid that people seeking a final exit will do it the old-fashioned way.
The Secretary of State's information pamphlet includes a poignant letter from Heather Clish, of Reading, who talks about her father who had brain cancer and wanted to check out in Oregon where they already have this law. "My dad was already dying, but because of this law, he could say goodbye to those he loved with dignity and grace in my mother's arms."
She concludes, and I agree with her, "I urge you to vote ‘Yes' because while this choice isn't for everyone, everyone has the right to this choice."
Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY-Albany.
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