As the legislative session neared its end on Beacon Hill last spring, a bill that would have legalized medical aid in dying was sent to a committee for study, which is where bills go to die as time runs out on the calendar. We urge that it be brought forth again early in this session and that legislators get an actual opportunity to vote on it. Advocates of the bill, including families who have watched loved ones die lingering deaths, deserve at least that much.
This cause had been identified in many ways in recent years — doctor-assisted suicide, death with dignity, and medical aid in dying among them. It is currently known in Massachusetts as the End of Life Options Act, or Bill H1194. It stalled in the Joint Committee on Public Health last spring although there was strong legislative backing for it and polls showed solid support for medical assistance in dying in Massachusetts.
The bill, filed by Rep. Louis Kafka and Sen. Barbara L'Italien, does not make the path to medically assisted death easy. It instead mandates an appropriate amount of thought and caution. The patient must have a terminal illness judged to result in death in six months. The patient must make the request themselves, first orally and again writing at least 15 days later, and two people, including one non-relative, must witness the request. The bill's architects have been careful to address past concerns that relatives with ulterior motives, such as the claiming of an estate or an inheritance, could pressure someone into requesting a medically induced death.
The legislation also requires a patient to meet with a counselor to determine if any psychiatric or psychological conditions may affect their judgment. Before a prescription for a lethal dose of medication is issued, a physician is required to offer the patient an opportunity to rescind his or her request.
Medical assistance in dying legislation has stalled in five consecutive legislative sessions (a session lasts two years) and was narrowly defeated in a 2012 ballot initiative. However, a significant change in the issue's dynamic came two years ago when the Massachusetts Medical Society, which had long opposed medically assisted death and was a fierce opponent of the ballot measure, officially switched its position on the issue to neutral. An internal poll of MMS members found that 60 percent of respondents now favor allowing doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of medication to patients who seek it, and 41 percent wanted the group to actively support an assisted suicide bill in the Legislature. The concerns of the state's doctors who would be asked to apply lethal doses of medication to patients have always carried great weight, as they should. The shift in the opinion of many doctors and the Society's shift in its official stance should carry great weight as well going forward
Great weight should also be given to the determined advocacy of those who have seen family members and friends suffer lingering deaths from terminal illnesses and want to assure that they and others will have the option of being spared such suffering. Various forms of cancer, heart disease and other grievous illnesses can lead to prolonged and painful declines to inevitable death, and if this suffering can be avoided or lessened through medical intervention than that option should be made available. Certainly, there are those who consider this choice to be morally unethical, and while they have a right to their view they don't have the right to inflict it upon others who feel differently and believe they have a right to their individual choice, should the time arise.
The Berkshire Eagle has supported these legislative efforts over the years, as well as the ballot question, and supports this effort as well. We urge the Legislature to move the End of Life Options Act out of the Joint Committee on Public Health in the weeks ahead and put to a vote. Ideally, it will be passed into law and sent to the desk of Gov. Baker for his signature.