This November voters in Massachusetts will do more than just help elect a president. They may get a say on whether or not terminally ill individuals should have the ability to get a fatal prescription and control the terms of their own death.
Patient advocates are pushing a ballot initiative to legalize the practice they call “Death with Dignity,” or more commonly known as physician-assisted suicide. If the measure makes it on the ballot, and if voters approve it, Massachusetts would become the third state, joining Oregon and Washington, where voters have explicitly endorsed it.
Under the Massachusetts proposal, terminally ill, mentally competent adults deemed to have six months or less to live would have the freedom to obtain a fatal prescription. They could qualify for the prescription only after going through a process designed to ensure that they are not being coerced and that they fully understand what they’re doing. The patients would administer the drugs themselves and any doctor who opposed the practice could opt out of writing the prescription.
Massachusetts is a key point for this battle. Proponents of assisted suicide think the socially progressive state could help them advance their cause beyond the Pacific Northwest.
But Massachusetts is also a Catholic stronghold and Catholic leaders in the state have already begun a campaign to defeat the ballot initiative.
National Gallup polls have indicated that Americans, over the past half century, have grown more accepting of doctors helping patients end their lives. Fifty-six percent of respondents in a May 2007 poll said that when a person has an incurable disease and is living in severe pain, a doctor “should be allowed by law to assist the patient to commit suicide if the patient requests it.” But the topic remains highly contentious. A Gallup Poll a year ago suggested that Americans were nearly evenly split over whether assisted suicide was “morally acceptable.”
Ultimately the voters will need to decide if the risks of abuse and misdiagnoses are outweighed by the potential benefits to terminally ill patients and their families.
Photo from Lee J. Haywood via flickr.