Assisted suicide bill faces legislative deadline

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BOSTON – The clock is ticking to pull the plug or put a bill before Bay State lawmakers that would make physician-assisted suicide legal in Massachusetts, as the Joint Committee on Public Health has until Wednesday to recommend action on the measure.

The bill (HB 1991) began its legislative journey anew at the beginning of last year after an identical measure failed in the previous session. It was refiled in January 2015 by state Rep. Louis Kafka (D-Stoughton), which led to an October hearing before the public health committee. Massachusetts voters rejected a similar measure when it appeared on the 2012 general election ballot.

Advocates for the pending bill say that suffering patients should have the freedom to end their own lives with the help of a doctor who would be protected from legal repercussions, while opponents argue that such a law would create pressures on doctors and the terminally ill to take actions that they might not take if the law didn’t exist.

“There will be pressure on the physically, mentally and financially vulnerable to choose death,” Dr. Mark Rollo, a Fitchburg family physician, argued in October. “There will be pressure on physicians to violate their consciences.”

Recently, similar bills in other states have expired before reaching a vote, including in Iowa, New Jersey, Utah and Arizona. In Nebraska, a “right-to-die” bill stalled this month in a divided judiciary committee, while Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican, vowed to veto the measure if it reaches him, according to KMTV, a CBS network affiliate in Omaha.

In Colorado, state officials blocked a euthanasia measure from reaching the ballot after a similar bill was defeated in the state legislature. In Maryland, state Sen. Ron Young (D-Frederick County) last week withdrew a bill he filed to permit the practice, citing a lack of support from other lawmakers, according to Public News Service in Boulder, Colorado.

Assisted suicide is currently legal in five states – Montana, Oregon, Washington, Vermont and California.

A national group that opposes such measures lauded the demise of so many in recent weeks.

Coalitions in each of the states where those bills were defeated did a “fantastic job,” Barbara Lyons, coalition director of the Patient Rights Action Fund, said in a statement. The Princeton, New Jersey-based group’s president, J.J. Hanson, testified at the Massachusetts hearing for the bill last fall.

For more on physician-assisted suicide, click here.