Two of the most liberal states in the country killed off legislation that would have legalized assisted suicide.
Lawmakers in Massachusetts and Connecticut have shelved bills that would have allowed doctors to prescribe lethal medication to patients with terminal diagnoses. Activists, who prefer the term medical aid in dying, were hopeful that heavily Democratic majorities in both states would pass the bill, and Massachusetts, in particular, seemed receptive to assisted suicide after the state's top medical association withdrew its opposition to the practice and pledged neutrality on the bill.
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The Massachusetts Medical Society's stance, however, inspired backlash from doctors across the state. Former society president Dr. Tom Sullivan joined physicians across the state in February to lobby lawmakers against legalization. He told the Washington Free Beacon he was "overjoyed" when he learned that lawmakers would table the bill.
"The legislature agreed that it doesn't make sense to reverse a practice that's at least 2,500 years old," he said referring to the Hippocratic Oath. "I think the testimony of other doctors made them recognize that many physicians are opposed [to assisted suicide] … it's a call for us to do more and educate not only the public and legislators but our own physicians to take care of dying patients."
Mark Rollo, a primary care doctor and Air Force veteran, said doctors needed to step up to personally lobby lawmakers after the medical society's "gutless" neutrality stance. He said legislators were persuaded about the unintended consequences of legalization would have on insurance companies incentives to withhold more expensive life-extending treatments in favor of pushing suicide.
"I think the most important message in our victory is the reality that PAS would have become a cheap medical procedure that would have steered the vulnerable toward suicide and favored the white, wealthy, and well insured," Rollo said. "The poor, people of color, and people with disabilities would have received the all too familiar denial of care letters from insurance companies and from Medicaid, refusing to cover expensive care but offering to pay for suicide pills. We the people say no thanks."
Supporters of assisted suicide at Compassion and Choices were disappointed in the results. Spokesmen for the group said denying the bill would hinder the wishes of terminal patients. Marie Manis, Massachusetts campaign director for Compassion and Choices, said it would extend the suffering of the seriously ill.
"The tragedy is terminally ill Massachusetts residents with six months or less to live will not have this option to peacefully end their suffering if they need it before the legislature revisits this issue next year," she said in a statement.
Matt Valliere, executive director of anti-assisted suicide Patients Rights Action Fund, said many patients have been spared pressure to opt for suicide.
"We welcome the Massachusetts Health Committee's unanimous vote to send dangerous, regressive bills H1194/S1225 to ‘study,' effectively killing the push for legalized doctor assisted suicide for the session," he said in a statement. "Assisted suicide is not medical treatment. It is bad public policy that puts a great many at risk of deadly harm through mistakes, coercion, and abuse."
The legislative battles drew pro-life activists from across the country to pour into the states. Deanna Wallace, spokesman for Americans United for Life, visited the Connecticut statehouse with other activists to speak out against assisted suicide. She said the failure to pass the legislation in the heavily Democratic states demonstrated momentum for upholding prohibitions against the practice.
"The recent victories in Connecticut and Massachusetts continue the overwhelming trend in state legislatures against the legalization of physician-assisted suicide. In the past 23 years, there have been more than 200 failed attempts to legalize this dangerous practice, showing clearly that the momentum is on the side of the pro-life movement," Wallace said. "Americans United for Life will continue to fight to protect vulnerable people such as the elderly, ill, and disabled from this type of fatally flawed legislation."
Assisted suicide is legal in six states and Washington, D.C. While the groups celebrated their victories in Connecticut and Massachusetts, the Hawaii house passed assisted suicide and the Democratic governor has indicated he would sign it. Tim Appleton, Compassion and Choices' Connecticut campaign manager, said the group has not given up hope of returning to states that have rejected assisted suicide.
"The fight for medical aid in dying will continue, but for some terminally ill Connecticut residents, next year will be too late," Appleton said in a statement. "There's too much at stake to stop the fight, and we're confident that Connecticut residents will one day join the 1 in 5 American adults who have access to this compassionate option."
Dr. Sullivan, the former Massachusetts Medical Society president, said he is prepared to wage the battle again and plans on visiting the Rhode Island statehouse in the coming weeks as it weighs legalization. He said more must be done to ensure patients have access to palliative care and hospice care to ease suffering in a person's final months.
"I know this is going to be a never-ending battle," Sullivan said. "This isn't just a medical issue it's a moral, cultural, and social issue … We know this is another alarm call that we need to do more for people who are suffering and depressed that has led them to desire to end their own lives."