End-of-life ballot petition in AG's hands

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Wednesday September 7, 2011

The state attorney general's office will decide today whether to certify a proposed ballot initiative for next year to allow terminally ill adults to end their own lives with a lethal prescription.

Mirroring similar laws in Oregon and Washington state, the Massachusetts Death with Dignity Act proposes that patients with a prognosis of six months or less to live be able to request a prescription from their doctor for a lethal dose that they would administer themselves.

The petition states that the act would allow for "humane and dignified" death.

Marjorie Wexler, 68, of Egremont, said that after witnessing her sister in great pain in the last 10 days of her struggle with cancer, she is in favor of removing the liability associated with doctors helping a suffering person hasten their death.

"Ten days is an eternity when you're in the process of dying," Wexler said. "We knew that she was trying to be dead, frankly, but she couldn't quite get there. It was just gruesome, waiting those last days. It was terrible, and she was totally ready."

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The petition has also had prominent figures in medicine speak out in its favor, including Dr. Marcia Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine.

The petition contains numerous provisions about the patient's mental health, the discussion of alternatives such as hospice or palliative care, and the fact that patients must ingest the drug themselves.

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There would be a 15-day waiting period before patients could receive the prescription. One of two witnesses to the patient signing the prescription request must not be a relative, entitled to any portion of the patient's estate, or employed by the patient's health care facility.

The Massachusetts Council of Churches, which represents the state's four Roman Catholic dioceses, has spoken out against the movement.

The American Medical Association has also come out against the practice of physician-assisted suicide, saying in its opinion that it is "fundamentally incompatible with the physician's role as healer."

Reactions to the petition encapsulate the differing views about human dignity at the end of life, according to Julia Pedroni, a philosophy professor at Williams College.

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"Those are just two really deeply embedded values that conflict -- that ‘I should be able to say when enough is enough,' and, on the other hand, that ‘there is a dignity that we don't want policies to undermine,' " Pedroni said.

The question has deep social implications that should be publicly debated, she said, a process that could encourage more open conversation about death.

"As people debate this, they'll talk with their families about what's important to them about the end of their lives, and open up about the fact that death is inevitable for all of us," Pedroni said.

If the petition is approved, its supporters will have to collect more than 68,000 signatures to secure the question on the 2012 ballot.

To reach Amanda Korman:
akorman@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6243.


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