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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Voters to decide physician-assisted suicide Tuesday

Published: November 2, 2012
Section: News

Massachusetts voters will decide Tuesday whether or not to legalize assisted suicide. If the ballot measure passes, it will allow “a physician licensed in Massachusetts to prescribe medication, at the request of a terminally-ill patient meeting certain conditions, to end that person’s life,” according to the language of the proposal. It is one of the most contentious state questions in the coming election.

Currently, there are similar laws on the books in Oregon and Washington State. Oregon’s own “Death with Dignity” law was enacted in 1994. Since then, approximately 930 people have had lethal prescriptions written. Only 596 have passed away from the ingestion of those prescribed medications. According to Professor Gwendolyn Cadge (SOC), that only two thirds of patients for whom the medication is prescribed go on to take it, shows “it’s a comfort to have a choice.”

“People are used to being in control of their lives, want to remain in control,” explained Debra Poaster, director of the Brandeis Health Center.

According to Poaster, however, disability groups “feel that this opens the way to euthanasia in general.” Second Thoughts, a steering committee “for people with disabilities opposing the legalization of assisted suicide,” says that the bill devalues the lives of people who live with disabilities that may hinder their functions, or elderly people.

The Second Thoughts group believes that current legislation allows for people determined to end their own lives: “Under current law, any competent person has the right to stop or refuse treatment, including food and water, even if they know that will lead to death.”

Cadge explained how Oregon residents have reacted to the law.

“The people in Oregon who have used this measure are at the end of their lives,” Cadge said. In order to obtain a prescription, a patient must have less than six months to live and be mentally competent. Both the doctor prescribing the medication, as well as another providing a second opinion, must agree the patient is capable of making the decision. If a patient is diagnosed with depression, they are ineligible for the prescription: “Depression is a treatable condition,” Poaster said.

Despite fears that “in poorer groups there might be higher coercion,” Cadge said, a 2007 independent study in the Journal of Medical Ethics reported there was “no evidence of heightened risk for the elderly, women, the uninsured, people with low educational status, the poor, the physically disabled or chronically ill, minors, people with psychiatric illnesses including depression, or racial or ethnic minorities, compared with background populations.”

According to Cadge, some feel the ballot fails to fulfill medical standards. “It’s more important to improve the ways people die,” Cadge said, “rather than an easier way to die.” Cadge, however, believes the issue must be considered from the point of view of the patients.

“When you take it from the perspective of people who actually use it, rather than the philosophical stance,” said Cadge, who believes the question has “enough of checks and balances” to avoid abuse.

The Second Thoughts group feels that “the safeguards that are written into the Massachusetts bill are not strong enough to prevent abuses by family members, heirs or others,” especially in the case of people with long-term illnesses like diabetes or elderly people. They say the wording of the bill is unclear and could include individuals who rely on daily medications.

In Oregon, few people rate pain as a reason when asking for the medication, but rather limitations on activities and bodily functions.

The most recent polls show a narrowing of support for the measure. According to a Suffolk University and 7 News poll released Tuesday, the “Death with Dignity” proposal is favored by 47 percent and opposed by 41 percent of voters. The margin has narrowed considerably since September, when the polls held a 37-point spread.