For 20 years, the state of Massachusetts has been considering the legalization of physician-assisted suicide, but bills to do so have consistently failed. The most recent attempt was in 2020, but after advancing out of the Legislature’s Committee on Public Health that May, the proposed laws failed to pass during the legislative session. Now, another attempt is being made at decriminalizing so-called aid-in-dying.
In March 2021, two new bills were introduced: H.2381 and S.1384. A hearing was held on October 1 by the Legislature’s Committee on Public Health and the bills have the support of 84 members of the Legislature, 67 in the house and 17 in the Senate.
“The words of dignity, mercy, compassion are used to disguise the taking of one’s life, suicide,” said an opponent of the bill, Rep. Alan Silvia (D), during the hearing. One of his concerns, and a concern of all those who oppose assisted suicide, is that while aid-in-dying is presented as an individual choice, those at risk can experience pressure from friends, family, and others including doctors and insurance companies.
Stephanie Packer lives in California, but she understands this first hand. When she was diagnosed with cancer, her insurance company refused to cover her treatments but offered to pay for assisted suicide instead, because it was cheaper.
“California predicted beforehand that they would save money by covering lethal drugs,” she said. “[Assisted suicide] is not who we are as people. There are better ways. The voices of patients are being silenced right now, and they’re vulnerable of everything being pulled off because of money.”
John Kelly, director of the disability rights group Second Thoughts Massachusetts and New England Regional Director of Not Dead Yet, said that prejudice is the driving force behind the bills — and if the bills pass, they would only serve to reinforce the false notion that life with a disability or illness is not worth living. “People who have spent their whole life identifying as able, when they become disabled, they use the same prejudice that they applied against others to themselves,” he said. “Because in this country, if you’re disabled, you’re seen as less than.”
While proponents argue that the bills have safeguards to ensure only a small number of people would qualify for assisted suicide, including those given six months or less to live, opponents say that options such as palliative care should be improved so that people can live out their lives with pain relief and counseling.
In addition, doctors’ predictions about how long a person has left to live can be wrong — very wrong. Vicki Walsh was told she had one year left to live after her diagnosis of brain cancer. But she lived nine years longer than anyone thought she would. Told she had no more than 14 months left in 2011, she died in April 2021. She was an outspoken opponent of assisted suicide though she initially battled suicidal thoughts.
Still, proponents such as Peg Sandeen, executive director of Death with Dignity, argue, “Medicine is not politics. Medicine is medicine. And so we want to make sure you know, if there’s any sort of compromise that goes on legislatively, that we still have a process that patients can navigate and patients get access.”
But medicine is meant to heal illness and maintain a person’s health, not kill.
The Massachusetts bills require that a patient request death in writing after consulting a doctor and a licensed mental health professional, and they must be able to take the life-ending drugs on their own. They must have no more than six months left to live — and there are waiting periods in between the steps to be approved. However, as has been seen in countries where assisted suicide has already been legalized, the rules eventually fall apart, and even infants and children are eventually allowed to be killed through euthanasia.
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