By Chris Haring
Right-to-die advocates and coalition partners shared their support for the End of Life Options Act, an assisted-dying bill proposed in 2022.
With increasing momentum on our side, the aid-in-dying movement in Massachusetts hopes that a 2024 edition of a medical aid-in-dying bill first introduced into the state legislature approximately a decade and a half ago will finally come to a floor vote.
Boosted by the additional support of Governor Maura Healey (D), the End of Life Options Act (H 2246/S 1331) would grant terminally ill residents the right to a peaceful, autonomous end of life. Representatives Jim O’Day (D – 14th Worcester) and Ted Philips (D- 8th Norfolk), and Senator Jo Comerford (D – Hampshire, Franklin, and Worcester) introduced the most recent version in 2022, when it failed to advance through the Joint Committee on Public Health.
As in the ten current aid-in-dying states (along with Washington, D.C.) where physician-assisted death is legal, Comerford says the legislation will help mentally capable patients with terminal conditions avoid needless suffering. And as Emilee Klein wrote for the Daily Hampshire Gazette, the hearing evoked stories of loved ones who yearned for the ability to decide for themselves when the terminal illnesses they lived with became untenable.
Mark Peterson, a Massachusetts resident, said he remembers his mother’s struggle with emphysema in 1985 when end-of-life care was even more limited. Without many current hospice and palliative care options, he said she endured a painful, prolonged passing. With the progress made since and peaceful deaths now possible where medical aid in dying is available, Peterson said nobody should have to suffer as she did.
Another MA supporter, Kimberly Lambert, spoke about her ailing mother’s experience, too. She said her mom had Parkinson’s Disease, resulting in excruciating pain and, coupled with the lack of accessible treatment, rendering her final days extremely challenging. Lambert believes that if expanded end-of-life options were available, simply knowing she had a choice could have helped grant her mother the strength to endure her pain.
While there is still some opposition to this legislation, it is essential to acknowledge its overwhelming popularity with the majority of Bay Staters – 75% of whom support legalizing aid in dying, according to a March poll. Notably, over 70% of voters who are Catholic, Protestant, or have a disability have also said they support the bill.
Under the leadership of dedicated advocates, coalition partners, and elected officials, Massachusetts has an opportunity to lead the way in providing relief for its residents who are suffering. As the discussion unfolds, it bears repeating that everyone, regardless of where they live or other circumstances, deserves the choice of a peaceful and humane Death with Dignity.
For more information on how to get involved in Massachusetts, please visit the state page on our website.
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(Disclaimer: As it appears in the following story, the term “assisted suicide” is problematic and inaccurate. Correct, appropriate terms include “medical aid in dying” or “physician-assisted dying/death.” Additionally, in jurisdictions with codified Death with Dignity laws, each specifies that medical aid in dying is, in fact, not suicide, nor a means to assist in suicide, so to call it otherwise is technically and legally inaccurate.)
Bill seeks to give terminally ill options: End of Life Options legislation that stalled in 2022 gets airing
By EMILEE KLEIN
published: 10/22/2023 4:01:37 PM
BOSTON — Easthampton resident Mark Peterson remembers the day his mother chose to take her death into her own hands nearly four decades ago.
Peterson’s mother was 78 when she was diagnosed with emphysema. She needed medication and oxygen around the clock in order to breathe. Peterson said his mother loved to read and play golf, but the oxygen tank inhibited her from golfing and her decaying eyesight prevented her from reading.
In 1985, Peterson’s mother had few end-of-life care options, as hospice and palliative care movements only began gaining traction a few years earlier. Around Thanksgiving of that year, Peterson’s mother announced her wish to die. A couple months later, on Jan. 9, 1986, Peterson’s mother stopped taking her oxygen, medication, food and water and “panted for five days” until she died.
“It was a hard death. We don’t need to have hard deaths these days,” Peterson said. “We can have peaceful deaths and the 10 or 11 states that allow [medical aid in dying], as long as you qualify to have six months or less to live, you can be provided medicine to help you go to sleep and not wake up.”
While end of life care options have expanded immensely since 1985, terminally-ill adults in immense pain still request an option for medicine that allows a person to die in their sleep.
Northampton resident Kimberly Lambert said her mother suffered from Parkinson’s disease. With no neurologists with movement disorder training in western Massachusetts, Lambert’s mother drove an hour to Worcester for treatment, a commute she couldn’t continue as the disease worsened.
“She had so much pain, and it’s my firm belief that if she had a choice (end of life options), it would have given her more strength to deal with the pain,” Lambert said.
On Friday, the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Health held a public hearing for legislation to permit medical aid in dying. The End of Life Options Act offers terminally-ill adults what Peterson and Lambert’s mothers asked for years ago: medication that allows adults with six months or less to live to self-ingest and die in their sleep.
The act, sponsored by Reps. James O’Day and Edward Philips and Sen. Jo Comerford (H 2246 / S 1331), describes a 10-step process with various precautions to protect individuals, including those with disabilities, from exploitation or coercion into a premature death. One safeguard, for instance, requires a written request for the medication with two witnesses, one of which cannot have any familial, medical or financial connection to the patient. Another provision involves two medical professionals diagnosing the six-month prognosis and one mental health professional investigating the mental capacity of the adult.
Comerford said the bill, supported by Gov. Maura Healey, offers a compassionate option to mentally capable patients with terminal conditions to choose a peaceful and humane death with dignity.
J.M. Sorrell, a Northampton resident who serves as volunteer executive director of Massachusetts Death with Dignity, testified on Friday about her 25 years of experience working with older adults and veterans in end-of-life care, where she says she witnesses individuals suffer needlessly because they didn’t have a choice over their death.
Sorrell gave her professional experience in a testimony two years ago, but this year she told the story of her father, who had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and various heart issues. Sorrell’s father, traumatized by his wife continuing to cough up blood until the day she died, opted to voluntarily stop eating and drinking (VSED) while in a Catholic hospice home.
“He conveyed to me that he wished it had be simpler for him and for me that he could have accessed medical aid-in-dying. I asked him how that fit in with his Catholic faith. My dad said he believed God would understand ending his suffering, as he was dying anyway,” Sorrell told the Joint Committee on Public Health.
Rep. O’Day said the legislation, which contains more than a dozen safeguards, is poised to become the “most comprehensive and strictest law in the country.” The West Boylston Democrat, whose son has cerebral palsy, called it unconscionable to think he could support a bill that harms people with disabilities.
“This legislation gives terminally ill patients the option to alleviate unbearable suffering. Hospice and palliative care, while incredible programs, can’t alleviate all pain and suffering for all patients,” O’Day told the committee. “The End of Life Options Act gives terminally ill patients a choice, their own choice, a choice on the quality of their life, a choice on the control of their lives.”
In an interview after the hearing, Sorrell said that while VSED and hospice worked for some, each individual reacts differently to their pain and illness. Just as a person chooses a prescription medication based on how it feels in their body, terminally-ill adults should choose the best end-of-care option based on their pain and body.
Opposition to legislation
The legislation has opposition, including by the Massachusetts Family Institute, a Christian advocacy organization. Michael King, MFI’s director of community alliances, testified at Friday’s hearing that in Oregon — where the practice is legal — only one-third of individuals chose “assisted suicide” due to pain or concern about future pain. King said people are more likely to seek the medication because they feel like a burden to others or have lost their enjoyment of life.
“Physician-assisted suicide also disproportionately affects the most vulnerable populations, including the elderly and disabled, and the mentally ill,” King told lawmakers. “These people are more likely to feel that their lives are not worth living and more likely to feel pressure from others to die. Instead of alleviating suffering, physician-assisted suicide eliminates the sufferer — it runs contrary to the physician’s oath to do no harm and will further undermine public trust in the medical profession.”
The bishops of Massachusetts are also opposed to physician-assisted suicide, which they call an “affront to life and a dangerous precedent for determining end of life issues. Physicians are trained to care for the ill, not to hasten death,” the bishops said in a 2022 statement released by the Massachusetts Catholic Conference (MCC) which represents the four Roman Catholic bishops of the commonwealth.
The Diocese of Springfield’s Respect Life Office says that “As Catholics, we believe in protecting life from the moment of conception to natural death.” Efforts to promote physician-assisted suicide undermine the protection of the most vulnerable, they write.
“While pitched as ‘death with dignity,’ often those who are terminally ill can feel pressured to make such a decision,” the office said.
Prior legislation was reported favorably out of committee last session, though it didn’t advance beyond the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing.
Voters in 2012 rejected a ballot question by 1.5% that would have permitted physicians to prescribe the medication, and the Supreme Judicial Court last year ruled that aid in dying is not protected by the Massachusetts Constitution.
Nearly 75% of Bay Staters support legalizing medical aid in dying, according to Beacon Research poll results released in March and commissioned by a supporter of the bills. Nearly 70% of voters who are Catholic, Protestant or have a disability support the bills, the poll of just over 1,000 people found.
Medical aid in dying is legal in 10 states, including Maine and Vermont, and in Washington, D.C, according to the nonprofit organization Compassion & Choices. In Oregon, which enacted the Death with Dignity Act in 1997, there have been no incidents of abuse or coercion, the organization said.