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Bill Everhart: With aid in dying bill's holdup, House sidelines an issue Mass. voters care about

05-10_Aid_in_Dying_Melissa_Stacy_Philips

Compassion and Choices northeast regional advocacy director Melissa Stacy, left, speaks with state Rep. Ted Philips at a May 10 virtual legislative briefing. More than 80 Massachusetts lawmakers have cosponsored legislation that would allow terminally ill patients to request and receive medication to end their lives, more than in any other state legislature across the country.

Ten years ago, the Massachusetts voting public wasn’t ready to support an aid-in-dying ballot referendum measure. Ten years later, it appears that voters are, but the House of Representatives hasn’t caught up with the people who put the members in office.

That’s unfortunate, because advocates have addressed concerns and some specious objections in crafting a responsible bill. Worse, House leadership doesn’t appear inclined to take a vote, preferring instead to let the clock run out on the session, which ends in July, a too frequently used strategy to avoid tough decisions.

The bill, which has passed the Senate, would allow people with fewer than six months to live to request life-ending medication from a physician. People suffering from a terminal illness could self-administer the drugs to end their lives on their own terms. Ten states have such measures and five others besides Massachusetts have them before lawmakers at one stage or another.

Speaker Ronald Mariano says the House is divided on the issue, telling The Boston Globe that “There’s not a 77 percent affirmative vote right now.” The figure is an apparent reference to the 77 percent support for aid-in-dying found in a recent poll of state residents, but Mariano doesn’t need 77 percent of the House for passage of the bill. It’s also unclear how he knows that the House would reject the measure. The surest way of knowing would be to have a roll call vote.

A 2012 voter referendum on aid-in-dying was narrowly defeated, with the state’s Catholic Church, led by the Archdiocese of Boston, leading the opposition in the final weeks.

In exchange for tax-exempt status, churches are supposed to refrain from political activity, but the Catholic Church is routinely involved politically, including by opposing the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) that has helped so many low-income Americans get health care.

Second Thoughts Massachusetts, an advocacy group that opposes the bill, argues that the terminal illness diagnosis that triggers use of a life-ending drug puts patients at the mercy of what could be an inaccurate diagnosis. Geoff Sugarman, an adviser for advocacy group Death With Dignity, observed to the Globe that the terminal diagnosis was selected because it is the same standard for entry into hospice care.

Second Thoughts Massachusetts maintains that fully funded palliative care is the ideal end-of-life solution, but it is naive to think that government will ever undertake such a costly program. It would also deprive people of a choice that should be their own.

The poll strongly indicates that the views on aid-in-dying have changed in Massachusetts over the past decade. This could be because the Catholic Church in Massachusetts and across the world, mired in clergy abuse scandals and bishop cover-ups, doesn’t command the same allegiance it did then. Maybe the pandemic has caused residents to think more about quality-of-life issues when a severe illness strikes.

Whatever the reason or reasons, it is apparent that the people are ahead of the lawmakers on this issue, and not for the first time. The legalization of gambling, marijuana and gay marriage are examples of issues where Massachusetts residents led and their government representatives followed.

In Texas, Florida and other red states, rights are being systematically taken away — voting, reproductive and LGBTQ+. Government should be in the business of giving people deserved rights, not robbing people of them.

Massachusetts has an opportunity to provide its citizens a deserved right, and the House should do just that by bringing the aid-in-dying bill to a vote and passing it before the July recess.

Bill Everhart, a former Eagle editorial page editor, is an occasional contributor.

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