Massachusetts could become the third state to legalize assisted suicide if Bay State voters approve a ballot measure Nov. 6 called the Death with Dignity Act. 

Cardinal O Malley
Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston has spoken out against the Death with Dignity measure. CNS photo by Karen Callaway

The proposed law is modeled on similar measures enacted in Washington state and Oregon, and it is championed by the same organizations that for almost two decades have presented assisted suicide as a humane choice that enables the terminally ill to die with dignity. 

However, the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the public policy arm for the state’s Catholic bishops, and a coalition of physicians, religious leaders and private citizens are trying to prevent assisted suicide from spreading to their state. 

James F. Driscoll, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, told Our Sunday Visitor that the conference has organized a statewide campaign to educate voters about the perils of assisted suicide. The individual dioceses have also undertaken efforts to inform Catholics about Church teachings on the issue. 

“From the Catholic perspective, any attempt or activity to end life prior to its natural ending is in direct conflict to the teaching of the Church,” Driscoll said. 

Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, said in a video-recorded statement that, despite arguments to the contrary, assisted suicide is not a compassionate response to the plight of the terminally ill. 

“We are called to comfort the sick, not to help them take their own lives,” said Cardinal O’Malley, who warned that suicide is “always a tragedy” and that legalizing it would create an expectation that “certain people are better served by being dead.” 

Persuasive proponents

However, observers say the “death with dignity” lobby is well-organized and well-funded, and that it has shrewdly framed the issue to voters as a matter of individual freedom and compassion by allowing people to avoid needless pain and suffering. 

Church Teaching
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops addressed assisted suicide in its 2011 statement “To Live Each Day with Dignity.” The bishops acknowledged that many people today fear dying, and losing control over their bodies, but added that society is called to respond to those fears with love and assistance.

Two organizations — Compassion and Choices (formerly called the Hemlock Society) and the Death with Dignity National Center — are among those championing the Massachusetts ballot initiative. Compassion and Choices currently has campaigns to legalize assisted suicide in Montana, New Mexico, Hawaii and Connecticut, according to its website. 

In Massachusetts, advocates for legalizing assisted suicide last year organized a petition drive that attracted more than 86,000 signatures. The state Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary heard testimony earlier this year from opponents and supporters of the measure, with wide coverage in local media outlets. 

Dr. Marcia Angell, a supporter of the Massachusetts Death with Dignity Act as well as a physician and former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, told Boston Public Radio earlier this month that the real question is, “Why would anyone oppose it?” 

“This act merely permits dying patients, ones who find their suffering unendurable and who can’t find the relief that they want, permits such patients to ask their physician for a medication that would allow them to end their lives somewhat earlier,” Angell said. “These people are dying; remember that. Allow these patients to die a little more peacefully.” 

Voter education

A majority of Massachusetts voters may agree. A recent Public Policy Poll and a survey by the Western New England Polling Institute found that almost 60 percent of the state’s voters said they would vote yes for “Death with Dignity.” 

That has not discouraged opponents. Driscoll said voters are currently more focused on the highly contested races for the presidency and the U.S. Senate. 

Meanwhile, the Archdiocese of Boston has created a website, suicideisalwaysatragedy.org, to educate voters on the issue. 

Dr. Lynda Young, a pediatrician and president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, testified in March before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary that the society opposed the Death with Dignity Act. She quoted the American Medical Association’s Code of Medical Ethics, which says that allowing physicians to participate in assisted suicide would cause more harm than good. 

The Committee Against Physician Assisted Suicide has also said it is recruiting citizens, health care leaders and religious organizations to defeat the “poorly written, confusing and flawed ballot question.” 

The ballot measure would allow someone diagnosed with a terminal illness, and given less than six months to live, to request a lethal dose of drugs. Two witnesses would need to say the person was acting voluntarily. The patient would have to self-administer the lethal dose, with the official cause of death not being listed as suicide, but rather the underlying illness. 

Lessons from other states

The law is essentially the same as in Washington state and Oregon, where voters legalized assisted suicide in 1997. Washington voters approved of the procedure in 2008. 

Since 1997, 596 people in Oregon have died from assisted suicide, with 71 people dying in 2011, according to official state health department statistics. 

Bud Bunce, communications director for the Archdiocese of Portland, Ore., told OSV that the Church was active in efforts to defeat, and later overturn, the measure, which he said degrades respect for life. 

“You have a certain number of people who have given up on life. They fail to see the value of life,” said Bunce, who added the rugged individualism philosophy ingrained in Oregon’s culture probably enabled assisted suicide’s legalization there. 

“We’re only about 12 percent Catholic, and in one of the most unchurched states in the country,” Bunce said. 

In Washington state, 94 out of 103 people who obtained life-ending drugs in 2011 have reportedly died, with no data available on the other nine individuals, according to state health department statistics. 

Of the 94, 87 percent said the loss of autonomy was a major issue. Loss of personal dignity was a factor for 79 percent, while 89 percent said they were concerned with losing the ability to participate in activities that make life enjoyable. 

A matter of control

Sister Sharon Park, executive director of the Washington State Catholic Conference, told OSV she found it “interesting” that only 38 percent of people said they were afraid of the pain associated with terminal illnesses, which was a major selling point by the assisted suicide lobby. 

“A lot of people have control issues,” Sister Park said. “But to deny that we lose control of our lives as we age is ridiculous.” 

Sister Park said the law is also problematic in that the reporting requirements do not reveal if someone is being pressured into killing themselves. 

“It’s unregulated. It’s secretive. There is no documentation. Nothing comes to light,” Sister Park said. “Abuse can take place and nobody knows anything about it.” 

Sister Park said the Church in Washington regularly holds workshops on end-of-life issues, including hospice and palliative care. She said the assisted suicide lobby appeals to voters’ emotions through 30-second sound-bite commercials. 

“Nobody truly wants to die in pain, and that’s how they show things,” she said. “Nobody wants to die without control.” 

Cardinal O’Malley added that when people are old, sick and losing heart, they need to be surrounded by people who ask, “How can I help you?” 

“We deserve to grow old in a society that views our cares and needs with the compassion grounded in respect, offering genuine support in our final days,” the cardinal said. 

Brian Fraga writes from Texas.