Aid in dying issue now before courts and Legislature

Image: Thinkstock
Image: Thinkstock

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, OCT. 27, 2016…..The debate over physician-assisted dying seems poised for a revival on Beacon Hill next session as advocates of medical aid in dying forge ahead on parallel tracks to secure the right of a terminally ill patient to choose when they die.

Compassion & Choices, a national end-of-life rights organization, has filed suit asking the state courts to affirm the right to medical aid in dying — sometimes known as “death with dignity” or “doctor-assisted suicide” — and the group’s Massachusetts campaign manager sees 2017 as a big year for the issue that’s failed on Beacon Hill before.

“We have been getting more and more support around this issue, both in the Legislature and around the state,” Marie Manis, campaign manager for Compassion & Choices Massachusetts, told the News Service. “I think 2017 is a breakthrough year.”

The suit filed this week in Suffolk Superior Court on behalf of two physicians — one of them diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer — asks the court to affirm “that medical aid in dying is not a crime under Massachusetts law” and to rule that physicians who provide medical aid in dying shall not be prosecuted, the group said.

“Having a prescription for aid-in-dying medication that I could self-administer if my suffering became too great in the final days would provide great comfort to me,” plaintiff Dr. Roger Kligler of Falmouth, who was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic castrate-resistant prostate cancer, said in a statement. “It would alleviate my anxiety about the dying process and allow me to live my final days more fully confident that I would not have to suffer needlessly.”

Compassion & Choices won a similar lawsuit when the Montana Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that state law did not prohibit a doctor from prescribing a lethal dose of medicine to “terminally ill, mentally capable adult patients.”

Aside from Montana, Oregon, Washington, Vermont and California have laws allowing doctors to prescribe lethal doses.

While Compassion & Choices pursues an expedited resolution to its suit due to Kligler’s worsening condition, Rep. Louis Kafka of Stoughton is preparing to file an aid-in-dying bill at the start of the next legislative session in January. Kafka said it will be at least the fifth time he’s filed such a bill.

“But with each session there’s been increased interest in the legislation and it’s been positive interest in the legislation,” he told the News Service. “So, I’m hoping anyway, that this next session we may be able to move it beyond just the committee level.”

Under the bill Kafka filed this session (H 1991), a patient with a terminal disease whose prognosis to live is six months or less could request that their doctor write a prescription for a life-ending medication. The person would first have to see a councilor to determine if they are suffering from depression or another psychological disorder. The medication request would also have to be witnessed by two individuals, who attest the person is capable of making the decision.

On Wednesday, the Provincetown Board of Selectmen voted 5-0 to call on the Legislature to pass Kafka’s bill. The Cambridge City Council voted unanimously in September to adopt a resolution calling on the Legislature to do the same.

Four years ago, Massachusetts voters narrowly rejected a ballot question similar to the bill filed by Kafka with 51 percent opposed and 49 percent in favor, a margin of 67,891 votes.

Among the opponents of medical aid-in-dying is the Massachusetts Medical Society, which testified against Kafka’s bill a year ago by citing the American Medical Society’s code of ethics.

“It is understandable although tragic, that some patients in extreme duress…may come to decide that death is preferable to life. However, allowing physicians to participate in assisted suicide would cause more harm than good,” the code reads, according to MMS. “Physician assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer.”

Kafka’s aid-in-dying bill this session collected about 40 co-sponsors, and the Stoughton Democrat said Thursday he hears from more supporters each time he files the bill. He said he’s hopeful that trend will continue.

“It’s not only my constituents but people across the commonwealth who are in support of this and those numbers are growing,” Kafka said. “And obviously there are people who are opposed on various levels to what the bill does, but I am optimistic that the support will continue to increase going into the next session.”

Copyright 2016 State House News Service

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