‘Death With Dignity’ or Pressuring the Ill To Die? Physician-Assisted Suicide Bill Clash on Beacon Hill

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2017/09/26/death-with-dignity-or-pressuring-the-ill-to-die-physician-assisted-suicide-bill-clash-on-beacon-hill/

BOSTON — The last time he traveled to Beacon Hill to testify against physician-assisted suicide legislation, Dr. William Lawton spoke as a physician.

On Tuesday, he spoke as a patient.

Lawton, 74, diagnosed with incurable pancreatic cancer just months ago, told New Boston Post after delivering his testimony to the Joint Committee on Public Health that his illness has not affected his stance.

“There’s something called ‘cancer fatigue’,” Lawton said as he eased into a chair outside the hearing room.

He’s noticeably thinner than he was in the fall of 2015, the last time he testified. His hair is thinning. Lawton now walks with a cane, but he attributes modern medicine for his ability to walk around at all. His own terminal diagnosis hasn’t stopped him from speaking out against physician-assisted suicide. He said one of his reasons for choosing life is that there exists the chance that physicians treating his illness may one day use the knowledge gained to treat others — and potentially cure them.

“One of the things is that I have had opportunities to personally talk to proponents of this, concerning pain management,” he said. “A small number of people are going on information that is decades-old.

“One of the things that has really hit home for me is that our current state-of-the-art pain management is excellent.”

He spoke of receiving specific nerve-blocking treatments. Lawton said the experience has shown him how far medicine has advanced.

“I know what I have is incurable but my fear of the fear of the pain is not crippling,” Lawton added.

Meanwhile, inside the hearing room behind him, lawmakers were focused on the bill’s second hour of testimony. Dozens had spoken in favor of and against twin bills introduced by state Senator Barbara L’Italien (D-Andover) and state Representative Louis Kafka (D-Stoughton). The latest iteration of the bill marks the fifth try for Kafka, who said he was compelled to introduce it following the 2009 death of a constituent stricken with terminal stomach cancer.

L’Italien’s testimony included recalling her experience as an advocate for those with disabilities, including her autistic daughter.  She pointed to her experience working as a hospice aid.

“This bill does not in any way devalue the lives of individuals with disabilities to choose death,” she told the committee. “It’s not a question of whether they’re going to die, they are going to die.”

Yet others like Dr. William Toffler of Oregon countered that doctors “should not be steering vulnerable people towards suicide.” Physician-assisted suicide was legalized in Oregon nearly 20 years ago. Toffer described the prevalence inside his home state of a “subtle pressure to comply with state-sanctioned suicide.”

Toffler said, however, that there has been a “profound shift in attitudes” in Oregon. He recalled an encounter with a patient — not his — who asked him about two opinions she had received from her oncologists.

“She asked me, and this was the first time in my life I’ve been asked this, whether one of the doctors was a ‘death doctor’,” Toffler recalled. “This was a question that 20 years would be unheard of in the state of Oregon.”

Dr. William Toffler, center, flanked by doctors Mark Rollo (left) and William Lawton (right). (Evan Lips – New Boston Post)

The latest proposal on Beacon Hill, dubbed “An Act Relative to End of Life Options,” calls for allowing terminally ill citizens to obtain lethal doses of medication following consultation with their doctor. Voters in 2012 narrowly defeated a ballot initiative that would have legalized the practice. The revised bill lays out several requirements needed for patients to obtain lethal medication, including a mandatory 15-day waiting period following the initial request for the drugs and proof from third parties that the patient was in no way coerced into making the decision.

State Representative Denise Provost (D-Somerville), who opposes the bill, posited in her testimony that the committee should refer the proposal to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary “since we would be changing the criminal laws of the commonwealth.”

Others, such as Witness for Life co-chairman Kristine Correira, pointed out that Catholic hospitals operating in Massachusetts would be subjected to comply with a law that their faith prohibits them from following.

Correira, who works professionally as a physician assistant, claimed that the proposal “contains specific mandates under which no Catholic hospital can operate.”

Some of the most passionate testimony delivered Tuesday came from Dan Diaz, whose wife Brittany Maynard made national headlines in 2014 when she elected to move from California to Oregon after being diagnosed with incurable brain cancer in order to take advantage of the state’s physician-assisted suicide law.

“One option would be gentle,” Diaz said at one point during his testimony, referring to what he said were the only two outcomes for his wife. “The other would be terrifying and filled with unrelenting pain.”

Diaz criticized claims that medical advances can nullify the pain and suffering that terminally ill patients experience.

“It is simply not true,” he said. “It is irresponsible and it is reckless, I will line up scores of physicians who will refute such arrogant claims.

“That paternalistic view of a doctor telling you when you’ve suffered enough and then hooking up that patient to a morphine drip as they are dying a terrifying death — Brittany refused to accept that.”

Outside the hearing room, Diaz and Toffler exchanged words. In an interview with New Boston Post, Toffler said Diaz delivered “terrible testimony.” He said that the term “compassion” has been abused by the bill’s advocates.

“In a sense you have to have some dispassion,” he said. “I encounter this all the time with patients who say ‘whatever Mom wants’ — well I ask them, ‘what do you want?’”

“The idea of overdosing on a drug bothers them.”

Toffler acknowledged that Diaz is “clearly defending the promise he made to his wife” but countered that Maynard had actually outlived her prognosis. Toffler said he has never before spoken directly with Diaz.

“The reality is that we respect each other but we absolutely cannot come to common ground about this because it is a corruption of the medical practice,” Toffler said. “I have yet to get Dan [Diaz] to acknowledge that it’s got something wrong with it.

“I know he’s a very effective spokesperson for his cause and they’ve [Compassion & Choices]  actually hired him, he’s on payroll, his pay comes from doing this. You ask yourself what pay do I get — I got free airfare to travel here on Southwest Airlines.”

Toffler was invited to testify at Tuesday’s hearing by the Massachusetts Family Institute, a conservative nonprofit.

As for Lawton, his testimony featured a poignant final comment.

“I have purpose in my life to remain alive as long as I can,” he said. “I know not what the future holds, but I know who holds my future.”

Should the bill advance out of committee, it will mark the first such instance in Massachusetts.

Opponents of a bill that would legalize physician-assisted suicide in Massachusetts demonstrated outside the State House ahead of Tuesday’s hearing. (Evan Lips – New Boston Post)