Massachusetts vs. Assisted Suicide

A proposal to legalize physician-assisted suicide in Massachusetts is likely to get on the ballot next November.

BOSTON — An organization behind an effort to legalize physician-prescribed suicide in Massachusetts appeared to get over a major hurdle this month as it filed more than enough signatures required for a ballot initiative.

If the initiative is successful next November, the state will become the third in the nation to allow the practice of someone ending his own life with the help of a physician prescribing lethal drugs. Oregon and Washington currently allow the practice.

But gauging widespread popular support of the Massachusetts Death With Dignity Act is difficult. Language of the initiative and its campaign avoids the term “suicide,” instead using “compassion,” “dignified” “humane” and “end-of-life care.” Whether voters will affirm the proposal after education campaigns use terms such as “doctor prescribed” or “physician assisted” suicide remains unclear.

In Masses geared to area legal and medical professionals, Cardinal Seán O’Malley has taken the opportunity to speak out forcefully against the initiative.

“We hope that the citizens of the commonwealth will not be seduced by the language, ‘dignity, mercy, compassion,’ which are used to disguise the sheer brutality of helping someone to kill themselves,” said the archbishop of Boston at the Red Mass on Sept. 18.

Stephen Crawford, communications director for Dignity 2012, the supporting group of the initiative, thinks the “people of Massachusetts are ready for the discussion on this issue.”

Janet Benestad, chairwoman of a Boston archdiocesan steering committee on physician-assisted suicide, said that a group of about 12 people, some with connections to Harvard Medical School and the New England Journal of Medicine, were able to get an initiative petition certified by the Massachusetts attorney general on Sept. 7.

Supporters of the petition then had to gather 68,911 signatures for it to be considered by the state Legislature. Brian McNiff, a spokesman for the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, said as the Register went to press Dec. 8 that the group had filed over 80,000 signatures but that his office still had to count and verify them.

Peter McNulty of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference said that “the bishops are very much concerned with this issue,” and a steering committee has been formed to recommend a course of action. The conference is the public-policy arm of the state’s bishops and represents the four dioceses in the commonwealth.

McNulty does not expect the state Legislature to act on the petition by its early May deadline. If this is the case, the group then will need to collect an additional 11,485 signatures from May until early July for the petition to appear on the November 2012 ballot.

Language Concerns

The Massachusetts Death With Dignity Act seeks to allow adults, 18 years of age and older, to be able to self-administer lethal drugs, if their physicians have determined they have a terminal disease that “will, within reasonable medical judgment, produce death within six months.” The provision also requires that the process be “entirely voluntary on the part of all participants” and the adult has “the capacity to make health-care decisions.”

In the details of the petition, a patient’s death certificate would note the terminal disease as the cause of death, rather than suicide. References to assisted suicide are phrased “to end a patient’s life in a humane and dignified manner.” The initiative even states directly that actions of the proposal “shall not constitute suicide, assisted suicide, mercy killing or homicide under any criminal law of the commonwealth.”

When asked about the term “suicide,” Crawford said that his group hopes the voters in Massachusetts would support “a measure that will allow people who are at the end of their lives to receive a prescription to hasten their own death.”

He added that in many situations “these are people who would welcome the chance to live longer, fuller lives than their terminal disease will allow.”

“It’s not suicide in the traditional sense of someone who suffers from depression or despair, and that’s the distinction we hope to make in that language,” said Crawford.

In late October, Ann Corkery noticed a signature drive for the petition in the parking lot of a Boston grocery store. She remembers seeing a chalkboard that said: “Compassion for the terminally ill.”

As a pro-life advocate and a worker in a long-term care facility, she was familiar with the petition. After talking to the manager of the store and shopping with her daughter, she told the signature collector she would not sign and engaged her in conversation. The collector eventually told her to “just leave, just leave.”

“I think that when you see something like that you have to, kind of, call a spade a spade and shed light on something,” said Corkery.

Crawford said that volunteers have approached his organization to collect signatures, and the ones he has spoken to have reported that nobody has refused to sign the petition.

The Massachusetts Catholic Conference released an advisory about signature collectors for the measure in late October, and McNulty said that he has heard of about a dozen such incidents of signature collecting with the tailored language.

Cardinal O’Malley has called attention to Oregon, saying the state’s overall suicide rate has since climbed 35% higher than the national average after the Oregon law allowing physician-assisted suicide took place. He said this increase does not take into account the legal suicides that, per Oregon law, are not allowed to be tallied as suicides.

“Most people, regardless of religious affiliation, know that suicide is a tragedy, one that a compassionate society should work to prevent. They realize that allowing doctors to prescribe the means for their patients to kill themselves is a corruption of the medical profession,” said Cardinal O’Malley at the Red Mass.

Father Roger Landry, executive editor of the Fall River diocesan newspaper The Anchor, echoed Cardinal O’Malley’s reference to Oregon and believes a host of negative consequences could also happen in Massachusetts, if the petition passed.

“Once government begins to say under certain circumstances suicide is not only permitted, but a public good, then others in situations — that are by no means severe — start to take their own lives, as we’ve seen,” said Father Landry, who is also a pastor in New Bedford.

Father Landry believes that the ballot initiative can be defeated, but is concerned with the pace of the Church’s response, led by the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.

“Clearly, at an ecclesiastical level, we need to respond with greater urgency to the need for education about what this will really do,” said Father Landry.

Father Landry recommended that Catholics should read and study the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ statement on assisted suicide, “To Live Each Day With Dignity,” and be ready to engage in conversations with family, co-workers and friends.

“We need to make those ideas have consequences by reading them, fleshing them (out) and really passing them on in such a way that cannot only maintain the vestiges that still survive of the culture of life,” said Father Landry, “but actually fortify them.”

Justin Bell writes from Boston.