Primer: Pro And Con On Mass. Assisted Suicide Ballot Measure

John Kelly and Marcia Angell

Con and pro: John Kelly, disabilities rights activist and founder of Second Thoughts, who opposes Question 2; and Dr. Marcia Angell, senior lecturer in social medicine at Harvard Medical School and former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, who backs the measure. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Come November, if you live in Massachusetts, you’ll face a vote on a life-and-death issue (I mean, even more directly life-and-death than Obama v. Romney.) It’s Question 2 on the ballot, also known as the Death With Dignity initiative and the physician-assisted suicide measure.

It’s a big, rich debate infused by reports from earlier such measures in Oregon and Washington, and this 24-minute segment on Radio Boston is a great way to acquaint yourself with it.

(Points in dispute include even the language used: One of the measure’s proponents, Dr. Marcia Angell, notes: “These patients are dying. That’s why most proponents don’t like the term ‘physician-assisted suicide,’ because that compares it with a typical suicide, which involves somebody with a normal life expectancy choosing death over life. These people, unfortunately, don’t have that choice. They’re dying. And the only issue is the exact timing and the manner of death.”)

In case you run out of time yourself, here’s a telling story from the end of the segment, from a caller named Karen in Acton:

She didn’t want her son to remember her a way she didn’t want to be remembered.

My sister lived in Oregon, Eugene Oregon to be exact, and she had a son who had just turned 16. She was diagnosed with — and did have — appendix cancer, very rare and very lethal. She was only 52 yrs old when she died. This option, which was not easy to get — these end-of-life pills were not easy to get, she had to find a doctor who would agree to it, as you stated earlier. She had to have this terminal diagnosis, which there was no doubting. She was emaciated, she looked as if she belonged in a concentration camp near the end. But she wanted to have as much time with her son as possible. And we had the palliative care. I helped get everything in place so she could stay at home. And her knowing that it was her choice — she never used the pills. But she had them in her house because she did not want to get to the point where she could not have — she didn’t want her son to remember her a way she didn’t want to be remembered.

WBUR’s Sacha Pfeiffer comments that many people say they want to make their own end-of-life decisions. So why, she asks disabilities rights activist John Kelly, an opponent of the measure, not just let people with terminal diagnoses make the decision “if they want to go or not?”

He responds: “How is it a choice when the real choice is shifted to the insurer, the medical care provider, or, because there’s no one required [to witness] when the pills are taken, your own family. Think about vulnerable people. We’re making a social justice argument here and the progressive vote is no.”

Readers, thoughts? How do you plan to vote? Please stay tuned tomorrow for more on this topic.

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  • Nurse DM

    Being in the medical field for 40 yrs as a nurse and most my co-workers feel the same. The choice to end your life with dignity is the humane thing to do for people who are dying and are suffering. Regulations are the key. Choosing the moment to die with the people you love around you is dignity. If you choose not to end your life this way, that is your right. Too many people are receiving many medications and procedures to prolong the inevitable. I have seen people die with dignity and many without. I myself, would prefer dignity. Give me the choice.

  • Liz

    “Think about vulnerable people.” “How is it a choice when the real choice is shifted to the insurer, the medical care provider, or, because there’s no one required [to witness] when the pills are taken, your own family.” I agree with Mr. Kelly. How many cases are there already abuse of elderly and disabled people –this is a blank check to kill and elder for inheritance or convenience–and it won’t be a suicide it will be legal homicide. Some physicians already desire this as Physician-induced killing without consent. Its all about the mighty $$ and further endangers elders and disabled citizens. This is wrong! Bad idea!

  • gigi4747

    “just let people with terminal diagnoses make the decision “if they want to go or not?””
    There is no such thing as the right to make someone else, even someone who is in agreement with your decision at the time (in this case, a doctor), complicit in your death. I’m a nurse who has taken care of patients (in my professional and personal life) who are actively dying and, quite honestly, I wouldn’t trust a doctor who even wanted this type of prescriptive-writing authority.
    And of course Marcia Angell prefers the phrase, “Death with Dignity.” That’s obviously more palatable than the term that accurately describes what this is, ie, physician assisted suicide. If what you are promoting is really good, you don’t need euphemisms.

  • Tom

    Ultimately, opponents arguments almost always dissolve to a religious based argument shrouded in “facts” generally unsupported. I would simply say this: If your faith tells you not to do a thing, then do not do it. But recognize that your faith is not mine, and I have the right to make my own choice, not forced by your concept of a deity to which I do not recognize.

    • Kevin

      Opposition to this bill does NOT have to be religious. My fear is that it becomes common and there is social pressure to “get it over with”. I want the choice but also know I have good insurance and a loving family support network. What of the person who does not have those things?

      Yes, I read the bill’s safeguards but we all know laws draw a line and people will push past that line. The “line” today is that you cannot do it. But it is done.

      I have yet to decide how I will vote on this one.

    • gigi4747

      I’m not aware of any mainstream medical or nursing organization that supports physician-assisted suicide. Persons with disabilities, such as John Kelly, oppose it. The idea expressed in the Hippocratic Oath, ie, that doctors shouldn’t be helping their patients kill themselves, is obviously not religious. Simple common sense should tell us all that doctors should not have a hand in ending their patients lives.

  • CircusMcGurkus

    I loved my dog more than I ever thought possible to love another being. When he was dying of cancer, we both knew it and we both hated it. He was not in any pain and he had no interest in dying which he made clear to me. I certainly did not want him to leave. He died without any intervention in my arms at home. But, if he were suffering or if he wanted to go, as much as I adored him and as much as I miss him now, I would have sent him to spirit peacefully with the help of his vet. Why we cannot do the same for humans – who can make the decision – is beyond me.
    The fears about this option, and about death generally, are irrational. This is about reality. Not everyone wants the same thing; the ballot question just opens a door, it does not shove anyone through it.

  • Sara Sullivan

    This is clearly about the choice. The patients are going to die so let them make the decision. If you don’t want this choice, no one is forcing anyone to participate. The entire insurance company and other fears the opponents raise just seem like an excuse because they simply do not feel people should be allowed to have the choice. That’s fine. But they should just be honest and say “I don’t think this is a choice anyone should be allowed to make”