Massachusetts voters facing right-to-die showdown
By Chris Burrell, The Patriot Ledger, Aug 20, 2011
QUINCY — It didn’t take Roy Almeida more than a minute to shape an opinion about whether people with a terminal illness should have a legal right to kill themselves with lethal medications.
“I think that anyone who finds they’re terminal, and there’s no turning back, and they decide they want to go, they should have that right,” said the 72-year-old Quincy resident as he sat over morning coffee at Barry’s Deli in Wollaston.
The question dropped on Almeida’s breakfast table could be dropped in front of Massachusetts voters next year if a ballot initiative filed early this month with the state attorney general can pass legal reviews and muster some 70,000 signatures from registered voters.
The proposal to legalize assisted suicide for some terminally ill patients is likely to ignite a lot of debate. It was a controversial enough subject that 643 Patriot Ledger readers chimed in on a website questionnaire.
Nearly three-quarters – 474 – said they would vote in favor of such a referendum.
Backers of the ballot initiative have hired Quincy-based political consultant Michael Clarke to help push the “Death With Dignity Act” onto the 2012 ballot.
The proposed law would permit patients “with a terminal disease that will cause death within six months” to obtain drugs to “end his or her life in a humane and dignified manner.” The plan also requires the patient to be capable of making medical decisions and to consult with physicians.
Similar laws were passed in Oregon and Washington. In Oregon last year, 96 prescriptions for lethal medications were written, and 59 people took their own lives with those drugs.
“It was a wonderful experiment in Oregon when they started, and the experiment worked out,” said Dr. Milton Heifetz, a retired neurosurgeon and former professor at Boston College Law School.
Hiefetz cautioned that the decision should rest with the patient and not the doctor and added that the potential pitfall of these laws is a doctor’s terminal diagnosis.
“It’s very difficult to determine what is six months,” said Heifetz. “But I will say that it should certainly be passed if it’s written right.”
An opponent of such laws is Dr. Michael Grodin, a professor of health law at the Boston University School of Public Health, who called the initiative a symptom of a deeper problem, but not a solution.
“The problem is people don’t die very well. They die in hospitals and in pain when they should be at home with hospice care and with their loved ones,” he said. “I am very wary of assisted suicide when 45 million people don’t have health insurance or access to home health aides. The real issue is to support dying people.”
Outside of academia, the debate seems to elicit gut reactions from people.
Jude Sherman, who was shopping for used books at the Goodwill Store in Quincy, said she would vote against an assisted-suicide ballot question.
“It’s a slippery slope when you start that. Some people might just be weary of life and depressed,” she said. “I do believe people can have good and bad days and might make a bad decision.”
Christopher Burrell may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.