Massachusetts voters will have a chance in Question 2 on Tuesday’s ballot to allow a procedure where terminally ill patients can end their lives if they meet several qualifications, an option that has been decried by the disability community among others.
According to Second Thoughts: People with Disabilities Opposing the Legalization of Assisted Suicide, the only way to make a proposal like Question 2 acceptable would be to make the safeguards “so onerous, so strict” that it would be unfeasible, according to John Kelly, the group’s director.
Susan Orozco, of Dignity 2012, supports the question as it will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot, and the control that it gives to terminally ill patients to “end their lives on their own terms.”
The two argued their opposing points regarding the question in a panel discussion held at Suffolk University Law School on Thursday afternoon, led by Suffolk Law Dean Camille Nelson.
“It is up to them to make that decision, and that’s what this ballot is about,” Orozco said.
Kelly delved into the details of the proposed legislation, which would become law if a majority of voters support it next Tuesday, pointing out deficiencies he perceived with potential scenarios the legislation would be unable to prevent.
Heirs might pressure their relatives to end their life early, and the person might be stricken with dementia, and unable to stand up to the pressure, Kelly said. He claimed the life-ending medication could be added to a feeding-tube, a point Orozco disputed.
“We’re talking about people with histories of mental illness; we’re talking about people with depression,” Kelly said. He said, “This bill presumes a level of self-control and that is just not characteristic of everyone in society.”
Opponents of the ballot question added several lawmakers to their ranks. The Committee Against Physician Assisted Suicide announced on Thursday that 32 state legislators are opposed to the question.
Orozco, who ran as a Democrat against then-state Sen. Scott Brown in 2008, listed the steps necessary before someone is granted a prescription, which includes a prognosis of six-months to live; two verbal and one written request signed in the presence of two witnesses; approval by two doctors; and a 15-day waiting period between the two verbal requests.
“Opponents want to create fear within voters that this language will lead to reckless application of this law,” said Orozco. “I am very concerned and frustrated by some of the ads that have run against the question. They also scare me. They also strike me as scare tactics.”
In one ad, a self-described pharmacist says the legislation would allow people to commit suicide in their home with no doctor present using a “powerful narcotic” called Seconal. A Drug Enforcement Administration fact sheet notes that Seconal is a barbiturate that is abused by users to “experience euphoria.”
The legislation does not refer to a brand-name drug, and refers to “medication that the qualified patient may self-administer to end his or her life in a humane and dignified manner.” Kelly questioned whether the death would really be dignified, and raised questions about the implications of the state sanctioning the procedure.
“It starts setting up a situation where death is a treatment that brings a social benefit,” Kelly said, of the question. At another point, Kelly said, “To think that we could run a suicide program with zero abuse of all the possibilities: it’s naïve.”
Orozco pushed back on the idea that the legislation would allow for “suicide,” which she said often involves a person choosing to end their life when it would otherwise continue.
“These people in order to be eligible would have to be terminally ill with a life expectancy of no more than six months. Their disease is killing them,” said Orozco. “Their disease is taking their life. They’re just exerting some control over how and when.”
Kelly said depressed people could use the law and engage in “doctor shopping” until they found doctors willing to write them the prescription, and he said everyone already has a right to refuse treatment. Kelly also pointed out that in cases where the patient decides against ingesting the drugs, that leaves deadly drugs in the home, and said it’s possible for someone to pass out before ingesting the full dose.
Kelly also said the six-month prognosis does not specify whether that is with or without treatment for the disease, and questioned what might qualify as a reason someone might choose to take life-ending drugs.
“I don’t want to see incontinence enshrined as a reason to kill yourself for anyone at any age,” Kelly said. He said there should be more use of hospice care and noted hospices expel a significant number of patients who no longer qualify for hospice. He said, “Misdiagnosis is always high. Misdiagnosis in this case can be deadly.”
Orozco said hospice does not always comfort the dying.
“For some of those people, it’s unbearable for them, and it’s unbearable to watch their family go through that,” Orozco said. She said that in Oregon, which passed a similar law, 500 people have actually taken the drugs to end their lives in the 15 years the law has been in place. Washington also has a comparable law on its books, and Montana allows the same by court decision.
Kelly said that Oregon has not adequately tracked the outcome of patients who were prescribed the medication.
The list of legislators opposed to Question 2 includes:
Sen. Richard Moore (D-Uxbridge)
Rep. Hank Naughton (D-Clinton)
Rep. Marty Walsh (D-Dorchester)
Sen. Jack Hart (D-South Boston)
Sen. James Timilty (D-Walpole)
Sen. Eileen Donoghue (D-Lowell)
Rep. Shelia Harrington (R–Groton)
Rep. Paul Adams (R-Andover)
Rep. Eugene O'Flaherty (D-Chelsea)
Rep. Shaunna O'Connell (R-Taunton)
Rep. Steven Levy (R-Marlborough)
Rep. Vinny deMacedo (R-Plymouth)
Rep. Geoff Diehl (R-Whitman)
Rep. James Lyons (R-Andover)
Rep. Nick Collins (D-South Boston)
Rep. Ed Coppinger (D-Boston)
Rep. Paul Donato (D-Medford)
Rep. Jim Miceli (D-Wilmington)
Rep. Randy Hunt (R-East Sandwich)
Rep. Coleen Garry (D-Dracut)
Rep. John Rogers (D-Norwood)
Rep. John Fresolo (D-Worcester)
Rep. Angelo Scaccia (D-Readville)
Rep. John Binienda (D-Worcester)
Rep. Joyce Speliotis (D-Peabody)
Rep. Smitty Pignatelli (D-Lenox)
Rep. David Nangle (D-Lowell)
Rep. James Arciero (D-Westford)
Rep. Richard Bastien (R- Gardner)
Rep. Kevin Kuros (R-Uxbridge)
Rep. Ryan Fattman (R-Sutton)
Rep. Marco Devers (D-Lawrence)