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Millions Spent in Fight Over MA Assisted-Suicide Law

Thursday, October 18, 2012

 

Grassroots supporters and groups both inside and outside the Commonwealth have thrown their money and efforts into the battle over Question 2, which would allow physicians to prescribe end-of-life medication at the request of the terminally ill.

The Prescribing Medication to End Life ballot measure, if approved, would provide patients with the option of self-administering a prescription that would cause a humane death if they are deemed mentally capable, have been diagnosed with an incurable or irreversible disease that will cause death within six months and who have voluntarily expressed a wish to die.

The Massachusetts law, which would go into effect on January 1, 2013 if passed, is similar to death with dignity laws instituted in Washington and Oregon in recent years. Related laws have been defeated in several other states as well.

A survey of 1,051 likely Massachusetts voters conducted by Public Policy Polling earlier this month found that 56 percent of Bay Staters said they would vote yes on Question 2 if the election were today, while 30 percent said they would vote no and 14 percent said they were undecided.

With less than three weeks until Election Day, groups on both sides of the issue are working to get their message out and move those numbers decisively in one direction or the other.

The five main organizations have combined to spend nearly $1.5 million advocating for or against the measure, according to reports filed with the state's Office of Campaign and Political Finance, with plenty more still in the bank.

The Benefits of Death With Dignity

"This idea is new to Massachusetts, but our proposal mirrors the law that's existed in other states for 19 years," said Stephen Crawford, a spokesperson for Dignity 2012, one of two groups supporting Question 2.

"The death with dignity act is a conversation that we've been having with Massachusetts voters for over a year because we're finding that an overwhelming number of people belive that they should have the right to make their own healthcare decisions, their own choices if they were faced with a terminal diagnosis."

The Denver-based Compassion and Choices, an organization dedicated to ensuring the widest range of choices for end-of-life patients, is the other group encouraging Massachusetts residents to vote yes on Question 2, working in tandem with Dignity 2012.

"It's a natural fit for us to support the effort," said Amy Champion, the organization's Western Massachusetts coordinator.

"We're mostly mobilizing the poeple we know who are supporters of this and live in Massachusetts."

The two groups have spent a combined $336,574 this year through October 5th reporting, and Crawford said the majority of Dignity 2012's money comes from individual donors.

"We've had hundreds of volunteers, many of whom have experience with loved ones that have suffered a prolonged death," he said.

"We have hundreds of people inside Massachusetts who have donated to our campaign."

Champion said Compassion and Choices has roughly 2,000 members in Massachusetts. Dignity 2012 has been endorsed by the state chapter of the National Association of Social Workers and the American Medical Student Association, as well as Congressman Barney Frank.

The Risks of Assisted-Suicide Laws

"We know that the other side has the buzzwords, but we find that the more people find out about Question 2 the more they have second thoughts," said John Kelly, director of Second Thoughts: People with Disabilities Opposing the Legalization of Assisted Suicide.

"We see lots of opportunities for coercion, foul play and also just persuading vulnerable elders."

Kelly pointed to several aspects of the ballot measure that he found to be red flags. The law would not require that a witness be present when the end-of-life drugs are administered nor would it require a psychiatric evaluation, creating a potential risk of patients with histories of mental illness or suicide attempts to get access to the medications.

"I'm a disabled person that 40 years ago would have had nowhere to go," said Kelly, who uses a wheelchair after a spinal cord injury he suffered 30 years ago.

But with better support, good hospice care and better pain relief treatments, he said there are much more productive options for patients in 2012.

"Maybe this bill answered a need that was there 30 years ago. We've come a long way since then."

Kelly and Second Thoughts have been working with the group Massachusetts Against Doctor Prescribed Suicide in their "No on 2" efforts.

Campaign Manager Tim Rosales said the coalition encompasses everyone from disability rights organizations to doctors and medical professionals to faith-based groups.

"Massachusetts is an important state," he said of Question 2. "I think that it has repercussions on states like Vermont that has legislatively rejected doctor assisted suicide for a number of years."

Rosales noted that New Jersey has recently introduced assisted-suicide legislation and that California and Hawaii have defeated such measures. He said that groups like Compassion and Choices may be trying to take the issue to the national level even though Question 2 applies only to Massachusetts.

"I think they're certainly trying to gain some momentum and set a precednet that will help in other states."

Massachusetts Against Doctor Prescribed Suicide has spent $261,774 this year, with a portion of that money going toward television advertising to be aired in the coming weeks. The group's other efforts have focused on meeting with community groups and editorial boards throughout the state.

"I think this is a kind of issue people are going to wait a little bit to make up their mind, Rosales said. "We think that this is a great opporutnity to go in and really educate them."

The Committee Against Physician Assisted Suicide is the largest coalition opposing the ballot measure this Fall and has amassed over $1 million in contributions from across Massachusetts and the country.

The Massachusetts Medical Society, Mass Osteopathic Society and American Medical Association, among others, have all adopted a policies against such practices.

"Our stance on this is we're very concerned about the lack of safeguards in Question 2," said spokesperson Andy Hoglund.

"Regardless of your political persuasion or where you even stand philosophically, the fact of the matter is that Question 2 as designed is not up to snuff." 

 

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