Guest columnists Alberto Gambarini, Jerome Medalie and Stanley Handman: Elders support death with dignity

We are among the elder statesmen (and women) of the campaign in Massachusetts calling on our Legislature and governor to pass the medical and compassionate aid in dying law (also known as “death with dignity”) called “The End of Life Options Act.”

We know full well that our lawmakers need to do all they can to ease the medical and economic pain of the COVID-19 crisis for our citizens. But we believe they could also provide relief from suffering for many people who are terminally ill with other diseases, like cancer, and are facing extreme pain at the end of their life. These two priorities are not mutually exclusive.

One of us, 97, is a retired surgeon from Easthampton. Another is 94, a retired lawyer from Dedham and former assistant U.S. attorney who in 1953 broke the famous “Great Brinks Robbery.” The third, 86, is a retired business owner from Middleton.

Over the years, we have lost beloved wives, parents, siblings and friends. Despite the best medical and hospice care, some people before death suffer unwanted and unrelieved pain and deep emotional anguish. We’re grateful for the gift of our very long and satisfying lives, but we don’t want our ending to be filled with such suffering, frustration and loss of dignity. That’s why we attended the public hearing on the bill, held last June at the Statehouse by the Joint Committee on Public Health, and offered our testimony, along with many others.

Nine states plus Washington DC have passed such laws—most by statute, one by judicial decision. Maine and New Jersey did so last year; Vermont seven years ago; and Oregon 22 years ago. Approximately 80 million Americans presently have access, through their doctors, to this painless option of self-administered terminal relief when they are suffering and incurable.

These laws with strong safeguards built into them have worked well. There has not been one substantiated case of abuse, coercion or misuse regarding a vulnerable elder, disabled, minority, or low-income person.

New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he’d sign the bill if their State Assembly passes it this year. Maryland came one vote short of passing it last year, so it likely will pass this year, especially after a recent poll showed that 66% of the people support it.

There is nothing mandatory in this bill. No doctor may prescribe terminal sedation requested by a patient unless the patient is mentally capable, and not suffering from clinical depression or anxiety severe enough to impair his/her judgment; can take the prescribed medication by him or herself; has requested the medication orally and in writing, with two witnesses, one of whom cannot be included in the patient’s will; has met with two physicians and one mental health professional who each attest first to the patient’s understanding and awareness of the full consequences of her/his request, and second to the diagnosis of a terminal illness that will in all likelihood end her/his life within six months.

It is also entirely voluntary for physicians and pharmacists, who may choose not to participate. But the medical community has changed its views about aid in dying. At the end of 2017, after surveying its members, the Massachusetts Medical Society voted to end its long-standing opposition and adopted a position of “engaged neutrality.”

The bottom line for us is a question for our legislators in Boston as well as for any member of the public who’s opposed to the death with dignity bill: what moral right do you have to deny a terminally ill citizen the right to decide how much suffering, physical and mental, he or she must endure before death? Or how many of the citizen’s assets must be involuntarily transferred to unintended beneficiaries like doctors, hospitals or nursing homes, whose medical intervention has prolonged the quantity but not the quality of the person’s life?

We urge readers to contact your state legislators. Make your views about death with dignity known, and ask them to support H.1926 and S.1208 by passing it first in the Joint Committee on Public Health before the May 30 deadline, and then by the full House and Senate later in the session.

This column is co-authored by Dr. Alberto Gambarini, 97, a retired surgeon from Easthampton; Jerome Medalie, 95, a retired U.S. attorney from Dedham; and Stanley Handman, 86, a retired businessman from Middleton.

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