Assisted suicide may be back on the table in Democrat-led Massachusetts, despite years of rejection in the statehouse.
The Massachusetts End of Life Options Act would allow patients diagnosed as terminally ill to receive life-ending drugs from doctors. To qualify for assisted suicide, patients must be approved by a licensed mental health professional, along with providing an oral and written request. The terminally ill patient must have two witnesses to their written request—one being a non-family member. The bill prevents patients without a legal guardian from receiving lethal medication.
Proponents of assisted suicide have attempted to legalize assisted suicide for the past five years. Lawmakers shelved a similar proposal in 2018 after the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Public Health voted to send the bill to study, ensuring it would not receive a floor vote. The same joint committee once again opened the door for the possibility on Tuesday when it hosted a hearing on the 2019 "End of Life Options Act."
During his testimony, Dr. Roger Kligler discussed his experience of treating patients toward the end of their lives, and as someone with prostate cancer, said he believes the right to die is essential. He cited Oregon as a model for what legalized assisted suicide should be, claiming there have been no instances of doctors pressuring patients into suicide since its legalization in 1997. John Kelly, director of Second Thoughts Massachusetts, a group of disabled anti-assisted suicide activists, disputed Kligler’s, saying there had been multiple reported instances of abuse in Oregon, the first state to legalize the practice.
President and CEO of Americans United for Life Catherine Glenn Foster cited studies during her testimony that found pain is not a leading reason for patients choosing physician-assisted suicide. She said they can be used to manipulate vulnerable patients at the height of their suffering.
"Massachusetts has the responsibility to protect its vulnerable citizens—including elder adults and those living with disabilities—from abuse, neglect, and coercion," Foster told the Washington Free Beacon. "Laws like the one being debated in Massachusetts today are not ‘compassionate’ care for people suffering from depression, fear, or hopelessness at the end of life. These vulnerable people deserve our support, not abandonment by society or the healthcare providers they expect to give them comfort and care."
Opponents of the bill worry that insurance companies could pressure terminally ill patients to choose lethal drugs, rather than life-saving treatments that would be more costly. Stephanie Packer, who has a deadly condition called autoimmune disease scleroderma, testified to the Massachusetts lawmakers Tuesday expressing this concern. After her home state of California legalized assisted suicide, her insurance company no longer covered her medications. Although, Packer, a young mother of four, was told it would cost $1.20 for her to receive life-ending drugs.
When asked by lawmakers about Packer’s testimony, Kim Callinan, Chief Executive Officer of Compassion & Choices, said there is no data showing a trend of similar actions by insurance companies regarding assisted suicide coverage. She also stated that if she did find proof of such corruption, she and her organization, which advocates in favor of medical aid in dying, would fight against it. She urged lawmakers to advance the proposal quickly.
"While it’s easy for opponents to come up with worse case scenarios and hypotheticals, the concerns they raise simply have not been borne out in the data or evidence," she said in a statement following the hearing. "Terminally ill Bay Staters don't have the luxury of endless deliberations; they need this compassionate option right now."
Massachusetts failed to pass a similar bill legalizing assisted suicide last year. In 2017, the Massachusetts Medical Society (MMS) shifted its opposition to legalizing life-ending drugs for terminally ill patients to a neutral view. MMS reaffirmed this view during the hearing on Tuesday. The American Medical Association voted in early June to continue their opposition to physician-assisted suicide, stating it would "cause more harm than good."
Eight states and Washington, D.C. allow assisted suicide. Supporters have found success in the northeast in recent months. Maine and New Jersey are both in the midst of implementing the practice after signing legalization measures into law since April.