Suicide bill debate resumes in State House

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Should physician-assisted suicide be legal in Massachusetts?

Some say the measure helps people seeking to avoid a painful death, others believe unintended consequences could easily arise when insurers are left to choose expensive, life-prolonging treatments or cheap, fatal drugs. What do you believe?




BOSTON — A trio of doctors spoke out Thursday against a legislative proposal that would make Massachusetts the fourth state to let physicians prescribe lethal drugs to the terminally ill.

“The most vulnerable people in our society” will be most at risk of dying because of the measure, said Dr. Giles Whalen, head of cancer surgery at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. He was joined by Dr. Mark Rollo and Dr. William Lawton in voicing opposition to the proposal at the State House.

The focus of their comments was a bill refiled in January by state Rep. Louis Kafka (D-Stoughton) and a planned legislative hearing on the measure set for Oct. 27. A version he filed in 2013 failed to progress.

Rollo, a family physician in Fitchburg, said Kafka’s bill, patterned after a 1997 Oregon law, is flawed.

“There will be pressure on the physically, mentally and financially vulnerable to choose death,” Rollo said. “There will be pressure on physicians to violate their consciences. There’s no conscience protections in this bill regarding physicians who choose not to participate.”

Rollo cited Brittany Maynard, a California woman who went to Oregon a year ago to receive assistance in ending her life. He said Maynard, who suffered from terminal brain cancer, became a “cause celebre” for what supporters of Kafka’s measure refer to as “death with dignity.”

Maggie Karner, a Connecticut woman suffering from the same type of cancer, was “heavily influenced by the suicide” of Maynard, Rollo said, citing Karner’s words.

The Californian’s  “suicide puts other patients like me at risk of abuse or subtle pressure to comply with state-sanctioned suicide,” he quoted her as saying. “Another thing she said was that the right to die would ultimately become a duty to die.”

A supporter of Kafka’s bill accused Rollo and others of inaccurately describing the proposal.

“I recommend you read the bill,” Marie Manis, the state campaign manager for Compassion & Choices, a national nonprofit that promotes such laws, told the meeting. Manis said she took particular offense to the use of the term “suicide” to describe Maynard’s death.

“To call it suicide or euthanasia, the picture you paint is not a clear picture,” Manis said. “Ninety-five percent of the people who use the law are in hospice care.”

Lawton, a kidney expert who also teaches at UMass in Worcester, countered that Kafka’s bill is not about providing patients with a right to die.

“This bill is about giving doctors the right to kill,” he said. “That’s what we’re very concerned about.”

Rollo also referred to  Barbara Wagner, an Oregon woman diagnosed with lung cancer in 2008. Wagner’s case is well documented — instead of approving the $4,000 per month drug her physician prescribed her as a last hope in fighting the disease, her health insurer agreed to pay for the $50 it would cost to perform a physician-assisted death. 

“This underscores a lot of the dangers that could happen in Massachusetts,” Rollo said.

Lawton said physicians were present during only 14 percent of instances in Oregon in which patients elected to take lethal medication. Lawton also pointed out that the procedure is opposed by the Massachusetts Medical Society and the American Medical Association.

Massachusetts voters rejected a similar measure at the ballot box in November 2012.