Massachusetts Death with Dignity Ballot Initiative

My home state of Massachusetts has an initiative on the November ballot that would establish a “death with dignity” law closely modeled on the existing laws in Oregon and Washington. Surveys suggest that a majority of the public support the law, but influential groups including the Catholic Church and the Massachusetts Medical Society oppose it.

Today I had the privilege of meeting with a group of elderly men at a community center to tell them about the initiative, summarize the essence of the pro and con positions, and then lead them in discussion. In other words, something like a focus group.

The heart of the discussion was a spirited exchange between two of the participants. One who I’ll call “Skeptic,” opposed the initiative. Human nature being imperfect, he anticipated that some doctors would “specialize” in certifying that patients met the criteria for receiving a lethal prescription without the kind of careful clinical attention the law encourages. Whether the motivation was financial profit or perverse sadism, Skeptic was certain that this kind of medical misbehavior was inevitable.

The other, who I’ll call “Advocate,” argued that the right to receive a prescription for ending one’s life in the context of a terminal illness is a natural and necessary extension of the right to refuse treatment or to discontinue ongoing treatment. Advocate believed that science has created all manner of life prolonging interventions and that patients need tools to control what they receive or are subjected to.

Skeptic focused on the risks arising from misuse of the proposed law. Advocate focused on the risks arising from lack of autonomy for patients with terminal conditions.

The group agreed that both risks were real. Oversight by the Department of Publich Health, to whom use of the law would have to be reported, and the Board of Medicine, which could sanction outliers of the kind Skeptic envisioned, was trusted by some but not by others.

In my summary of the pros and cons I cited religious beliefs about the wrongness of hastening one’s own death and told the group about the Roman Catholic Archdiocese website “Suicide is Always a Tragedy.” No one in the group, however, brought in theological reasoning. I don’t know if this was because theology was not a driving force for them or if they regarded religious belief as private.

Where we ended was with a sense that the exchange between Skeptic and Advocate was best understood as a “good versus good” conflict. Skeptic took a consequentialist view – the law would allow unethical physicians to consign people to death without application of the safeguards the law sought to put into place. Advocate took a rights-based view – patients need and deserve more tools to allow them to advance their own autonomous choices.

I wasn’t trying to persuade the group to any position on the law. My aim was to (a) inform them and then (b) get a sense of how a population for whom the law, if passed, could become relevant, thought about the law. We concluded that intelligent, thoughtful, well-motivated persons of good will could, would, and did disagree.

I’ll write more about the topic after November 6!