Comerford to reintroduce medical aid-in-dying bill in wake of court decision

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 12-28-2022 6:12 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Sen. Jo Comerford said she intends to reintroduce a bill next month that would legalize “physician-assisted suicide,” just days after the state’s highest court ruled that the state constitution does not protect a doctor who provides life-ending medication to a patient.

“The constituents in this area support this pretty darn strongly,” Comerford said of the voters in her district, which includes parts of Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester counties. “Advocates are building a very strong case for support and clearly public opinion is changing. More and more people understand what this is, what it isn’t and what the safeguards are.”

Last week’s decision by the Supreme Judicial Court comes six years after a patient with Stage 4 cancer and a doctor sued seeking a declaration that physicians can legally prescribe medication to bring about a terminally ill patient’s death. The justices said they could not conclude that such a practice “ranks among those fundamental rights protected by the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.” The court found that “the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights does not reach so far as to protect physician-assisted suicide.”

The unanimous decision said case law indicates a doctor providing a patient with a prescription intended to bring about their death “may be considered wanton or reckless behavior,” meeting the definition of involuntary manslaughter, and judges called a physician’s intent to end suffering with such medication “irrelevant.”

Justices left an opening, however, for lawmakers to take action on the topic — which voters rejected at the ballot box a decade ago — after years of holding hearings without advancing a bill for a vote.

“We respect the immense magnitude of all end-of-life decisions and acknowledge the overwhelming importance of the desire to conclude one’s life in a way that is painless, peaceful and consistent with one’s values,” Justice Frank Gaziano wrote in a 64-page ruling. “Our decision today does not diminish the critical nature of these interests, but rather recognizes the limits of our Constitution, and the proper role of the judiciary in a functioning democracy.

“The desirability and practicality of physician-assisted suicide raises not only weighty philosophical questions about the nature of life and death, but also difficult technical questions about the regulation of the medical field,” Gaziano added. “These questions are best left to the democratic process, where their resolution can be informed by robust public debate and thoughtful research by experts in the field.”

State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, called the decision disappointing but not unexpected.

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“I wish it was softer, but at the end of the day there needs to be legislation, and the Legislature will take action,” Sabadosa said.

Massachusetts voters narrowly rejected a “death with dignity” ballot question in 2012, with opposition backed by institutions such as the Catholic church. Since then, however, polls have shown increasing support for the idea, with a Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll in May showing that 77% of state residents support the rights of terminally ill patients to choose to end their life. The practice of physician-assisted suicide has become legal in several other states, such as Maine, Vermont, Oregon, Washington state, California, Colorado, Hawaii, New Jersey, New Mexico and Washington D.C.

In Massachusetts, two bills are active in the current legislative session that would legalize medically assisted suicide: a House bill, H.2381, introduced by Reps. Jim O’Day of West Boylston and John Mahoney of Worcester; and the Senate bill, S.1384, filed by Comerford, a member of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Health.

Those bills, however, will expire when the current legislative session ends on Jan. 3, with neither making it to the floor in time for a vote. Comerford said she will file another bill in the Senate before the new legislative session begins on Jan. 20, with an identical bill also planned to be filed in the House.

The bills will then go through public hearings before being sent to various committees for discussion and debate. If the two bills emerge unaltered, then they will be sent to the governor to sign. If they end up differing, however, then it will have to go to conference for reconciliation.

J.M. Sorrell, executive director of Massachusetts Death with Dignity and a resident of Northampton, said the current bills are more conservative than similar bills that have become law in other states, in order to ensure a greater chance of passing.

“It models Hawaii, which was the other one that was a little bit more conservative than the others in terms of limitations and the hoops you have to go through to get medical aid in dying,” Sorrell said. “Once you get something passed, you can always work on amendments later, so I’m working to be patient.”

Advocates for physician-assisted suicide are hopeful for the next legislative session, when Gov.-elect Maura Healey takes office. Healey reaffirmed her support for the rights of medical aid in dying on Boston Public Radio, clearing the way for the Legislature to pass a bill without fear of a veto.

“The governor has indicated that this is an issue that she understands,” Comerford said. “Our job is to get her the best possible bill, with time for her to look at it and to engage her people along the way.”

Material from the State House News Service was used in this report.

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