Narrow Victory over Physician-Assisted Suicide Measure in Massachusetts


BY MARY STROKA

Apart from debates about the presidential election, several individual states' voters faced other controversies on ballots. Massachusetts voters rejected a physician-assisted suicide measure 51-to-49 percent on Election Day 2012, for example. The ballot initiative would have allowed a Massachusetts-licensed physician to prescribe lethal medication if the patient met certain criteria.

The patient had to be an adult "medically determined to be mentally capable of making and communicating health care decisions," "diagnosed by attending and consulting physicians as having an incurable, irreversible disease that will, within reasonable medical judgment, cause death within six months," and voluntarily communicating an informed desire to die, according to the Massachusetts Commonwealth's online voter guide.

Photo by Certo Xornal; some rights reserved.

Massachusetts would have joined the states of Oregon and Washington had it accepted the measure, also known as the "Death with Dignity" act.

Opponents of the act focused on convincing people that it was flawed in a few ways: there was no requirement of a psychiatric exam, a patient did not need to notify family members of his or her decision, and predicting when a person will die from a disease is difficult. The measure's opponents raised $4.8 million, about four times as much money as the measure's proponents. The two largest donors were the Boston Catholic Television Center and St. John's Seminary Corporation, which both spent $1 million. [1]

Voter Brian Peter O'Hanlon has lived in Massachusetts for four years. He said, "A lot of the folks . . . were talking more about the wording of the law, and how it did not mention consulting a psychologist or informing the family, and generally was not really well-written, rather than talking about ending human life.

"Perhaps this was for the best, as Massachusetts residents may not be very receptive to talking about the dignity of life and would view the arguments about wording better, but I fear that in the future, the proponents of the physician-assisted suicide bill may reword the bill and add much of what opponents claimed was lacking, and so the focus will have to come down to dignity and end-of-life care, which things were certainly mentioned this time as well, just not emphasized as much."

Polish immigrant and Massachusetts resident Weronika Balewski voted for the first time this year. "This was the only question I was really clear about," she said. "I was really glad I could participate in the decision."

She said people from St. Clement's Eucharistic Shrine in Boston distributed pamphlets in public places, explaining the pro-life position and informing passersby why people were against it.

Balewski said physician-assisted suicide does not make sense in a pro-life context. "You would never hand a suicidal person a gun to shoot himself or tell him to go ahead and jump off a bridge. It's an instinctual thought that people shouldn't commit suicide; they should get help instead," she said. "We shouldn't force expensive, unnecessary treatments but that doesn't mean we have the right to take away basic care at the end of life."

She said it reflects a more widespread social problem.

"The 'Death with Dignity' act is like a word battle. It sounds nice; everyone wants to die with dignity, but it's not dignified to help someone commit suicide. We're so afraid of suffering and not wanting to be a burden on people," she said. "In my life, I see people who think their worth is based on what they do. They feel worthless if society doesn't judge their actions to be productive. People dying aren't being productive, they might be in a lot of pain, but that doesn't make their life worthless. I [could] not defend this belief if I believe[d] that physician-assisted suicide is okay."

Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture; some rights reserved.

REFERENCE

[1] Chris Camire, “Support Withered for Assisted-suicide Ballot Question,” Lowell Sun, December 9, 2012, http://www.lowellsun.com/todaysheadlines/ci_22157064/support-withered-assisted-suicide-ballot-question#ixzz2Egbgwy23.

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