Our Opinion: Give residents option to die with dignity

For the eighth time, a bill addressing a terminal patient's right to choose his or her time and manner of death is under consideration by the Massachusetts Legislature. Opposing sides in this existential question are characterized by the passion with which they hold their views; among them, some religious groups argue that "assisted suicide," as they call it, is a sin. The Massachusetts Medical Society's official position is that it violates doctors' oath to be healers, although the question is so fraught that the organization has decided to poll its members for their individual opinions.

Other opponents fear that insurance companies, greedy heirs, or low-income and/or handicapped patients seeking a cheap alternative to expensive treatments will take advantage of a more permissive legal environment.

Then there are the advocates of a right-to-die law — those who feel that a terminal patient ought to have the right to determine his or her own fate, particularly if living involves unbearable pain. Others in the same camp argue that the way a person chooses to die is nobody's business but his or her own, and certainly not within the purview of the state or a particular religion a sick person doesn't practice.

The current proposed legislation, sponsored by State Representative Louise Kafka (D-Stoughton) and State Senator Barbara L'Italien (D-Andover), along with 44 and 11 co-sponsors, respectively — is a responsible bill that offers terminally ill patients the option of "death with dignity," as it has been called by advocates, providing certain important safeguards are adhered to. It requires patients whose ailments have been diagnosed as terminal within six months and who have been found by professionals to be of sound mind, to make two separate oral requests for a life-ending prescription at least 15 days apart, as well as a written request signed by two witnesses. Doctors would have to wait 48 hours before writing prescriptions, after notifying patients of alternatives (hospice care, for example).

A recent poll by Suffolk University/7 News found that 64 percent of Massachusetts residents favor such a bill. Laws similar or identical to it are already on the books in five states (including Vermont) as well as the District of Columbia.

Probably the most salient aspect of the bill is that it forces no one, especially doctors, to perform any act against their will. There is no coercive aspect to the bill. A doctor is not required to fill a prescription for life-ending drugs, and if a doctor chooses to, responsibility ends once he or she has written the prescription. It is then up to the individual as to whether to resort to the drugs. In Oregon and Washington, a majority, but by no means all, of those obtaining the drugs actually used them; some just wanted the reassurance of knowing that if their suffering became unbearable, they would have another option than spending their last days in excruciating pain.

With the baby-boom generation reaching the twilight of life, the right-to-die issue has acquired great immediacy. Now that existing laws have been proven safe and effective in other states, it's time for Massachusetts to follow suit. It's the humane thing to do.


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