dignity 2012

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Major Battle Over Assisted Suicide Brewing In Mass.

A London hospice patient

Mark my words: There’s a great big battle brewing in Massachusetts over helping terminally ill patients commit suicide.

That’s not an original thought; in fact, a post last month on the New Old Age blog at nytimes.com was headlined “The Next Death-With-Dignity Battleground” and described energetic efforts to put the issue on next year’s Massachusetts ballot.

But the signs are multiplying that the battle is indeed on its way. The group behind the ballot initiative, Dignity 2012, gathered nearly 80,000 residents’ signatures, which seems to be a comfortable margin over the 70,000 or so needed to put a measure on the ballot. And this weekend, delegates at a major meeting of the Massachusetts Medical Society voted to reaffirm their opposition to physician-assisted suicide, according to a society press release. It begins:

The Massachusetts Medical Society, the statewide association of physicians with more than 23,000 members, today voted to reaffirm its opposition to physician-assisted suicide, with its House of Delegates voting by a wide margin to maintain a policy the Society has had in effect since 1996.

Opposition to physician-assisted suicide was part of a larger policy statement that includes recognition of patient dignity at the end of life and the physician’s role in caring for terminally-ill patients. The policy was approved by more than 75 percent of the Society’s delegates.

Lynda Young, M.D., president of the Society, said that “Physicians of our Society have clearly declared that physician-assisted suicide is inconsistent with the physician’s role as healer and health care provider. At the same time we recognize the importance of patient dignity and the critical role that physicians have in end-of-life care.”

Stephen Crawford, spokesman for Dignity 2012, responds that the measure as proposed — the full language is here — is not about “physician-assisted suicide.”

“What this question will allow under Massachusetts law,” he said, “is for terminally ill patients to ask their doctor to prescribe life-ending medicine. That is not physician-assisted suicide in the sense we traditionally think of it. These are self-administered drugs.” Continue reading