Ballot Initiative of the Day: Massachusetts Debates Physician-Assisted Suicide

Supporters call Massachusetts’ Question 2 the Death with Dignity Act. Opponents call it physician-assisted suicide.

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Supporters call Massachusetts’ Question 2 the Death with Dignity Act. Opponents call it physician-assisted suicide. The proposed law would allow doctors to prescribe medication to end a patient’s life if he or she is mentally sound, expected to die within six months and wishes to hasten their own death.

Polling suggests the proposal is likely to pass. A University of Massachusetts poll found voters to be in favor 65% to 19%, while a Public Policy Polling survey reported support outpacing opposition 56% to 30%. Opponents say the polls can’t be trusted because the issue did not earn much public attention until the last few weeks.

Despite its lead in the polls, Question 2 is facing a late onslaught from the opposition. The Roman Catholic Church—a powerful institution in Massachusetts—has come out against the measure, as has the Massachusetts Medical Society. “Laws that sanction physician-assisted suicide undermine the physician-patient relationship, which is based on the patient’s trust that the physician is working for the patient’s health and welfare,” says Richard Aghababian, President of the Massachusetts Medical Society. “The proposed safeguards against abuse are insufficient, as data verification and oversight are not included in the proposal.”

Opponents also note that predicting the end of life within six months is not always accurate and that other options are available, such as palliative care and hospice.“It’s a flawed ballot question that lacks the safeguards needed to protect people at a very vulnerable time – when they’ve received a bad diagnosis,” says Mark Horan, a spokesman for the Committee Against Physician Assisted Suicide. “Under this question, you could obtain a lethal prescription without ever seeing a mental health professional, without consulting with a palliative care expert, and without talking to a family member.”

If physician-assisted death passes, Massachusetts would become the third state to legalize physician-assisted death. Washington voters approved a similar measure in 2008, nearly two decades after their first attempt, and Oregon made it legal in 1997. The Montana Supreme Court ruled to protect doctors who assist patients in death in 2009, but the ruling did not officially make physician assisted-death legal. Voters have turned down similar ballot propositions in Maine, Michigan and California. Physician-assisted death is explicitly criminalized in 34 states.