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Lawmakers hear testimony on bill to allow terminally ill to end their lives peacefully

  • Supporters and opponents of a bill to enable physician-assisted end-of-life options testified at the Massachusetts Statehouse on Tuesday. M.J. TIDWELL

  • C.J. Williams, the director of outreach and education at Rehumanize International, holds signs opposing a bill to enable physician-assisted end-of-life options at the Massachusetts Statehouse on Tuesday. M.J.TIDWELL



For the Gazette
Wednesday, September 27, 2017

BOSTON — Supporters and opponents of a bill to enable physician-assisted end-of-life options testified in front of a packed hearing room at the Statehouse Tuesday, sharing personal stories that have shaped their stance on the issue.

Proposed for the fifth time by Rep. Louis Kafka, D-Stoughton, the bill would enable patients with a terminal and incurable diagnosis, of six months or less to live, to obtain drugs to end their lives, while working with physicians for end-of-life care.

Forty-three legislators have signed on as petitioners for the bill, including Rep. John Scibak, D-South Hadley.

Several supporters told stories of loved ones dying painful, protracted deaths and told the Legislature’s Committee on Public Health that the matter comes down to giving people choice.

Three supporters from Compassion and Choices, a national nonprofit in support of end-of-life options, told of the death of a mother, a husband and a wife. The last was Dan Diaz, who spoke of his wife Brittany Maynard’s decision to move to Oregon after receiving a terminal diagnosis and learning she had just a few months to live.

Oregon is one of five states to have passed physician-assisted end-of-life legislation. In Massachusetts, 52 percent of the state voted against a 2012 ballot question proposing similar legislation. However, in Hampshire County, more than 61 percent of voters approved of the question.

Nationally, a 2016 Gallup poll showed that 69 percent of Americans say doctors should be allowed to end a patient’s life by painless means.

Sen. Barbara L’Italien, D-Andover, is a key sponsor of the bill. At the hearing she said her mother recently died of Alzheimer’s, and that as a woman of faith, she supports the bill “in concert with palliative and hospice care.”

“This is about choice for folks,” L’Italien said, “This is about some modicum of control.”

However, opponents said it’s not just individual choice at stake when it comes to the proposed legislation.

Rep. Denise Provost, D-Somerville, said she empathizes with the desire for a relatively peaceful death, but said the proposed legislation would alter homicide law in Massachusetts. She urged the committee not to take that kind of a change lightly.

Doctors groups have long opposed such laws, which they call physician-assisted suicide, as has the Roman Catholic Church and right-to-life organizations.

The Massachusetts Medical Society on Tuesday reiterated its position against the bill, saying it was incompatible with the role of doctors as healers. But the group also said it was surveying its 25,000 member physicians to gauge their views on the subject, with the results expected in December.

The American College of Physicians also reaffirmed its opposition earlier this month.

Jacqueline Rivers, executive director of the Seymour Institute on Black Church and Policy Studies, a “pro-poor, pro-life, pro-family” group, said the proposed legislation would create an unintended cultural shift for impoverished minorities.

“Poor black and brown people will be affected by the subtleties of societal pressure,” Rivers said.

She said those communities are often underserved already when it comes to palliative and hospice care and the availability of physician-assisted end-of-life options might put pressure on poor families to make a choice not to spend money on treatment and care if this bill were passed.

The bill under consideration in Massachusetts establishes a number of conditions before life-ending medication can be prescribed. Patients must make requests both orally and in writing; a physician must certify they have an incurable disease that will almost certainly cause death within six months; and a mental health professional must determine the patient is of sound mind and making the decision without duress.

Before the hearing, C.J. Williams, the director of outreach and education at Rehumanize International, held signs outside the entrance to the Statehouse to show her organization’s opposition.

Like Rivers, she said the bill would have unforeseen impacts on minority communities.

“I never want to minimize anyone’s pain,” Williams told the Gazette, “but when you give insurance companies the opportunity to ditch research that costs money to cure people and just decide instead to give you a really cheap pill to get rid of you … it just makes it really easy to feel like your life doesn’t matter, when it’s already so easy to feel like your life doesn’t matter.”

Kafka said the bill was designed with a number of safeguards to protect against misuse.

“Even after the patient receives the medication, they don’t have to take it,” Kafka said.

He asked anyone who thinks the bill is too broad to contact him and said he wants to take as much input as possible to make the legislation work.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

M.J. Tidwell writes for the Boston University Statehouse Program.