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Buoyed by a rise in support in Massachusetts, proponents of an aid in dying bill are hopeful for a vote in the Statehouse

Massachusetts Statehouse front entrance

Seeing a rise in support across Massachusetts, proponents of a bill to legalize medical aid in dying are hopeful that this is the year they will see a vote in the Legislature.

BOSTON — Buoyed by what they describe as the highest number of lawmakers in support in any state legislature, backers of a long-debated, controversial bill legalizing medical aid in dying say they are optimistic the measure will emerge this session for its first-ever vote in the House or Senate.

A version of the bill has been filed every two-year session since 2008 — both before and after voters rejected a 2012 ballot question featuring a similar proposal — but legislative leaders have never brought it to the floor of either chamber.

Our Opinion: End of Life Options Act merits a vote in favor

While top Democrats remain silent on the topic, backers said they believe a growing number of rank-and-file lawmakers who have lined up behind the idea of allowing terminally ill patients to request and receive medication to end their lives has pushed the legislation into the realm of possibility.

Melissa Stacy, northeast regional advocacy manager for Compassion and Choices, told the News Service on Tuesday that a total of 85 representatives and senators have co-sponsored the latest version of the bill, representing the “highest we’ve seen, raw number-wise, of support in any state.”

Additional lawmakers who did not cosponsor the bill told Compassion and Choices that they support the idea, according to Stacy, who said the group is confident “we have more than 50 percent support in both the House and the Senate.”

“We have, as you heard from our champions, more support in the State House in both bodies than we’ve ever had before, and I can tell you as someone who works in other states as well, we have the most support in any legislature that we’ve ever seen across the country,” Stacy said during a virtual briefing supporters of the bill convened Tuesday. “We really feel like now is the time and this is the session to do it.”

The topic of medical aid in dying has proven contentious and repeatedly produced heated, emotional testimony about medical ethics, patient suffering and disability rights.

By a margin of 51.1 percent to 48.9 percent, Massachusetts voters in 2012 rejected a ballot question that would have allowed licensed physicians, at the request of a patient, to prescribe medication to end the life of a mentally capable adult diagnosed as having a terminal illness likely to cause their death within six months.

Opponents argue that authorizing the practice would make patients vulnerable to persuasion and abuse and would carry disparate impacts on people of color or people with disabilities. Instead, they say, providers should focus on ensuring access to palliative care to relieve pain and discomfort for terminally ill patients.

“The tragic reality is that under legalized assisted suicide, some people’s lives will be ended without their true consent, through misdiagnosis, persuasion, coercion and abuse, insurance denials and depression,” said John Kelly, a Boston disability advocate who serves as director for the Second Thoughts Massachusetts group opposing the legislation, in a statement Tuesday. “No safeguards have ever been enacted or proposed that can prevent this outcome, which can never be undone.”

Meanwhile, the groups lined up behind the legislation contend that their opponents misrepresent medical aid in dying when they describe the proposal as a type of “suicide.”

During their legislative briefing Tuesday, supporters said the latest version of the proposal features several measures designed to prevent its misuse. Sen. Susan Moran, a Falmouth Democrat and a cosponsor of the bill, called it “a much different piece of legislation than in 2012.”

Two physicians would need to certify that a patient is terminally ill with a life expectancy of six months or less and is mentally capable and acting voluntarily before approving medical aid in dying.

Those patients would be required to seek evaluation by a licensed mental health professional, confirm their request a second time after a waiting period, and have two witnesses — at least one of whom is disinterested — participate.

Dr. Roger Kligler, a retired physician with incurable metastatic prostate cancer who has long advocated in favor of the reform, said Massachusetts would have “the most restrictive law of the 22 percent of the country where it is authorized” if lawmakers enacted the bill as drafted.

Arguing against the bill, Kelly contended that physicians would be unable to limit eligibility for medical aid in dying to a “narrow set of people.” He pointed to the share of patients who wind up outliving a six-month prognosis, warning that they would get no chance to do so if they pursued life-ending medication.

”Just as many people disqualify me from full humanity because of my disability, some people disqualify themselves and are disqualified by others when they need help,” Kelly said. “The state of Massachusetts must not sponsor people’s suicides because other people consider them a burden, because they believe they are dying when they are not, and because they have been denied the treatment and support services that would keep them alive.”

The Public Health Committee — which is co-chaired by the bill’s main Senate sponsor, Sen. Jo Comerford — gave a favorable recommendation to the bill in March for the second straight lawmaking session. The Health Care Financing Committee, where a similar version stalled out two years ago, has until June 1 to make a decision on the legislation.

”This is as far as it’s ever gotten this session and last session,” Stacy said. “It’s never gone to the floor for a vote.”

Neither of the Health Care Financing Committee’s chairs, Rep. John Lawn of Watertown and Sen. Cindy Friedman of Arlington, responded to News Service requests for comment on Tuesday, nor have they joined the list of cosponsors.

Aides for House Speaker Ronald Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka also did not respond to inquiries seeking the two top Democrats’ views on the topic.

Rep. Jim O’Day, a member of Mariano’s leadership team who filed the House version of the bill this session, on Tuesday called for supporters of the measure to be aggressive in their advocacy.

”It’s really important that we, as advocates — when you hear a misstatement, a mistruth, we have to dispel that. We have to do as strong a job as possible,” O’Day said during the legislative briefing. “Speaker Mariano is looking at hundreds of bills. If he hears negativity on a bill and we don’t clarify that, that just sort of potentially — and for the Senate president — puts us a little bit back behind where we might be today.”

A Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll released late last month found 76.6 percent of Massachusetts residents support the idea of allowing terminally ill patients to request aid-in-dying medication for their doctors, compared to nearly 16 percent in opposition and 7 percent who were undecided. The poll of 800 Bay Staters conducted from April 24 to April 28 represents a 7-point jump in support for the proposal compared to a similar survey in November 2019.

”Each time we speak about the potential of this bill moving forward, what happens? We hear not necessarily from the 77 percent, but from the minority,” said O’Day, a West Boylston Democrat. “They speak loudly and they speak incorrectly, inadequately, and that sometimes slows the process.”

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