BOSTON (SHNS) – Grieving family members who have watched the agonizing, slow deaths of their loved ones clashed Friday with members of the disability community and conservative groups over the prospect of legalizing medical aid in dying, resurfacing conflicting emotions that have contributed to the legislation being stalled on Beacon Hill for over a decade.
Proposals from Reps. James O’Day and Edward Philips and Sen. Jo Comerford (H 2246 / S 1331) would allow consenting Massachusetts residents who are terminally ill and expected to die within six months to obtain medicine to “bring about a peaceful death.”
The bills contain “rigorous safeguards” for patients and physicians to ensure individuals, including those with disabilities, are not coerced into ending their lives prematurely as they experience pain and suffering, Comerford told the Joint Committee on Public Health.
“The bill, titled End of Life Options, is meant to emphasize that this bill offers a compassionate option to mentally capable patients with terminal conditions to choose a peaceful and humane death with dignity,” said Comerford, who noted that Gov. Maura Healey supports the legislation.
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 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.
Under the legislation, terminally ill patients’ mental capacity must be evaluated by a physician or licensed mental health professional and patients need to make two separate requests for the self-administered medication. The proposals do not require health care providers or pharmacists to practice medical aid in dying.
Michael King, director of community alliances at the Christian advocacy organization Massachusetts Family Institute, said 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.”
Nearly 75 percent 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 percent of voters who are Catholic, Protestant or have a disability support the bills, the poll of just over 1,000 people found.
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.”
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.
The proposal before the Legislature, which provides the end-of-life option to only Massachusetts residents, falls short of a recent Vermont law that scrapped the residency requirement and now permits out-of-state residents to access the medication. The change came after a Connecticut woman with cancer sued Vermont, which passed its medical aid in dying law in 2013, as she sought to access the medication there, according to the Vermont Public radio station.
Dan Diaz recounted to lawmakers how his 29-year-old wife, Brittany Maynard, who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, had to relocate to Oregon to access medical aid in dying. The story of the California couple, which garnered national media attention, happened in 2014, when only four states permitted the medication.
“Terminally ill individuals in Massachusetts are currently at a significant disadvantage as it comes to end-of-life options. The people of Massachusetts should not have to leave their home like we did after being told that they have six months to live,” Diaz told lawmakers. “The people of Massachusetts deserve better than the odyssey that Brittany had to go through just to ensure her dying process would be gentle.”
Tahni Morell, who lost her husband to colorectal cancer, offered lawmakers a different perspective.
Morell said her husband, Paul, lived far longer than his doctors had expected, including six years with a Stage 4 diagnosis. The couple also unexpectedly had a third child, despite being told it wasn’t possible, Morell said at the hearing.
“In the final weeks, as Paul’s warrior spirit and bodily functions were stripped away, and he became more vulnerable, Paul and I exchanged end-stage love and forgiveness, healing conversations that were so vulnerable — they never would have occurred like that before when he was feeling stronger,” she said. “There is profound purposefulness in the end stages of dying, and it’s a sacred process that I would never want to cut short.”