‘Death with dignity’ push continues: Lawmakers, supporters advocate for medically assisted dying

By SYDNEY KO

For the Recorder

Published: 02-20-2023 2:30 PM

BOSTON — Fifteen years ago, Bev Baccelli was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow. After treatment at Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center and Tufts Medical Center, Baccelli continues with her day-to-day life. Yet, over that period, she said she witnessed several deaths in her family from terminal illnesses — none of which were peaceful.

“I believe we are a state of personal freedom and self-determination, but also a state that looks at everyone and tries to find out how to make people’s lives better in any kind of way,” Baccelli said.

In recent years, that has included a debate over medical aid in dying. At a legislative briefing last week, lawmakers and advocates for the right to die pushed for the state to pass the End of Life Options Act, new legislation that would allow individuals with a terminal illness to end their own lives on their own terms. The measure was filed by Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and co-sponsored by Rep. Jim O’Day, D-West Boylston, and Ted Philips, D-Sharon.

In 2012, Massachusetts voters narrowly rejected a “death with dignity” ballot question by 1.5%, with strong opposition stemming from popular religious sentiments. The ballot measure would have authorized doctors to prescribe drugs to enable the terminally ill to end their lives.

While the Supreme Judicial Court upheld the state’s ban in 2022, the high court ruled that the ultimate decision on the question lies within the Legislature. Since then, the idea has been backed by numerous supporters.

A public poll by The Boston Globe and Suffolk University last June found 77% of respondents said that they favored a law allowing terminally ill patients to end their own lives.

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The End of Life Options Act would, if passed, allow individuals who have received a terminal diagnosis of six months or fewer to work with a doctor to end their life on their own terms. The bill also comes with a number of “guardrails” and evaluations for patients.

“We’ve done this because constituents have helped make us smarter about it. … Over the last four years, the bill has benefited from testimony of people from across the commonwealth” Comerford said.

The bill outlines a 10-step process for individuals seeking medical aid in dying. Individuals must be an adult resident of Massachusetts, with the capability of making an informed decision. They must also confirm that they are acting voluntarily. Once the eligibility requirement is met, physicians would have to inform patients of the risks of taking the medication and be told they could opt out at any time. Afterward, a psychiatrist would evaluate the patient’s mental health status.

Comerford expects the measure will be approved by the Legislature’s Committee on Public Health after a hearing during the 2023-24 session.

J.M. Sorrell, a Northampton resident who serves as executive director of Massachusetts Death with Dignity, said it is important to note that the bill offers people suffering from terminal illness a choice to avoid unnecessary pain. While it may be sufficient for some to receive palliative or hospice level care, Sorrell said it’s not for others.

“I have seen too many people beg to be relieved of their suffering and not having an avenue to do that,” Sorrell said.

Sorrell noted that VSED, or Voluntarily Stopped Eating and Drinking, is an option for terminally ill patients who don’t have access to medical aid in dying. It is legal nationwide and supported in hospice care, but still has its own challenges.

“When I served as the ombudsman director and in other roles, I was involved with doctors and nurses in the area who would support patients who utilize VSED, and we would talk about why medical aid in dying would be the next logical right for people to have,” Sorrell said.

Sorrell noted she is confident that the bill will pass.

“I think that there’s more momentum this year. It feels like things are more lined up from a practical standpoint,” Sorrell said.

Toward the end of the briefing, the Rev. Victoria Weinstein, a parish minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lynn, shared stories she received from families of patients with terminal illness.

Weinstein said family members and loved ones are often desperate to find a way to help, and there is no legal system available to them to bring their loved ones’ peace.

Weinstein shared a story of one of her parishioners, who came to her in grief.

“The loved ones who have said to me, ‘My loved one who died begged me to help them, and I did, I helped them with a little extra morphine,’” Weinstein said.

Whatever the help was, Weinstein said family members were often left with a sense of guilt, the weight of responsibility and criminality.

“You just heard a story about someone who was accused, who was caring for their loved one … this is a very real moral conundrum,” Weinstein said.

She added that people who are terminally ill have told her that they weren’t afraid to die. Instead, it’s the feeling of helplessness that they don’t want their loved ones to endure.

“Life is a terminal condition,” Weinstein said, “but that doesn’t mean we all have a terminal diagnosis.”

Sydney Ko writes from the Boston University Statehouse Program.

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