Group, voters challenge Massachusetts assisted suicide measure

More than 60 voters filed a challenge before the state Supreme Court on May 17, requesting that the initiative be amended to clarify its language.
Wed Jun 13, 2012 - 7:16 pm EST

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS, June 13, 2012 ( - A legal challenge is underway against a proposed initiative that would legalize assisted suicide in Massachusetts.

More than 60 voters filed a challenge before the state Supreme Court on May 17, requesting that the initiative be amended to clarify its language. However, the Court has not held hearings on the request, and the wording is not expected to be changed.

The initiative, which has passed the preliminary threshold of 68,000 signatures and now needs an additional 11,000 signatures by June 19 to reach the November ballot, states: “A YES VOTE would enact the proposed law allowing 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.”

A recent poll by Western New England University Polling Institute found that 60% of Massachusetts voters support the initiative, while only 29% oppose it. But critics fear that voters are being misled by unclear language.

John Kelly, director of disability rights group Second Thoughts believes the measure’s use of “terminally-ill” is “clearly misleading,” because “people will be encouraged to assume that being ‘terminally ill’ is a biological fact, rather than a human guess.”

Second Thoughts member Paul Spooner says the word “medication” is deceptive, as well. “People will be led to believe that the measure is about palliative care, when it is about taking a lethal overdose – in other words, poison. Why not just call the act by its common and legal name, ‘physician-assisted suicide?’”

According to the Massachusetts Alliance Against Doctor-Prescribed Suicide, a coalition of state doctors, ethicists, disability advocates, and citizens who oppose the initiative, the language is also inadequate in that it “does not require that patients be referred for psychiatric counseling” prior to their suicide “unless their attending physician deems it necessary.”

MAADPS Chair Robin Loughman told LifeSiteNews that she believes the measure would elevate suicide to the status of one healthcare option among many, encouraging people to think of it more seriously as a viable option. She also warned that the law would be susceptible to abuse.

“When you request the dose, there must be two witnesses,” Loughman said. “One of the witnesses can be an heir, and the other one could be a friend of the heir who doesn’t even know you. If you are not able to make your intentions known, your heir can tell the nurse, ‘oh, I know what Grandma means, when she nods her head, that means she agrees,’ and that would be acceptable under this.”

MAADPS also argues that proponents of assisted suicide fail to consider all the options available to a suffering patient. “Many recent studies have shown that given our current levels of medical technology there may not be any such thing as ‘unmanageable pain,’” their website reads. “Pain can be treated up to and including palliative sedation in extreme cases.  There’s no need to add suicide into the mix.”

The group also notes, “the majority of patients who attempt suicide suffer from severe depression.  In elderly patients more than 90% of those who attempt suicide suffer from depression which, while severe, is entirely treatable.”

Interestingly, recent polling data indicates that Massachusetts Catholic voters’ views on assisted suicide vary widely depending on their church attendance. Catholics overall support it 52% to 36%, while the numbers are almost exactly reversed for those who attend church weekly, at 52% opposed to 37% supporting. Catholics who attend church “about once a month, seldom, or never” line up most closely with the general public, favoring it 62% to 25%.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops declared in a June 2011 statement that doctor-assisted suicide violates the Church’s call “to live each day with dignity.”

“They cry out for our compassion, a word whose root meaning is to ‘suffer with’ another person,” the bishops’ statement reads. “True compassion alleviates suffering while maintaining solidarity with those who suffer. It does not put lethal drugs in their hands and abandon them to their suicidal impulses, or to the self-serving motives of others who may want them dead. It helps vulnerable people with their problems instead of treating them as the problem.”

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