Mass. assisted suicide hearing: a few notes

H1991 sticker[Edited to add news coverage links]

“Got Second Thoughts?” Those simple black & white lapel stickers were a welcome sight as I found my way with hundreds of other people to the Massachusetts Legislative hearing on assisted suicide earlier this week. A little later, someone handed me a sticker with “1991” – the bill number – with a slash through it. I was pleased to wear both.

Also on display, albeit not on me, were colorful stickers with the Compassion and Choices logo: “my life, my death, my dignity.” (“Compassion and Choices”: thereby hangs a tale.)

What I saw and heard on Beacon Hill this week is very similar to what I’ve heard at other hearings in Concord and Hartford over the past year or two. What startled me, and made me very glad I showed up to resist H. 1991, was the intensity and optimism of assisted suicide advocates who are not taking the concerns of disability-rights activists seriously.

Nancy Elliott, awaiting hearing on MA assisted suicide bill.
Nancy Elliott, awaiting hearing on MA assisted suicide bill.

Nancy Elliott said it well. A former New Hampshire state representative who now works against euthanasia and assisted-suicide initiatives, she counseled some opponents of the bill just before the hearing: “You have to work ten times harder than you think you do” in opposing assisted suicide. “This is never finished.”

I was present for only the first couple of hours of the hearing, which was scheduled to go on for at least two hours after that. I offer here some of my impressions. This is an incomplete account; I’m leaving out too many names and too many good points that were made – the risk of elder abuse, the discrimination caused by the better-dead-than-disabled mentality, the fallacy of thinking that a decision to die affects only the person making it. Every speaker I heard lent force to Nancy’s warning that this is never finished.

(More from opponents of the bill: Written testimony by Attorney Margaret Dore of Choice is an Illusion; statement from Massachusetts Medical Society; New Boston Post coverage of the hearing; video of JJ Hanson of the Patients Rights Council; John Kelly and Brian Shea quoted in MassLive.com; Cathy Ludlum and Stephen Mendelsohn on WCVB-TV, Boston; Hartford Courant)

It helps to know the right people: as in my home state, legislators in Massachusetts are accorded the privilege of testifying first on bills, ahead of members of the general public. Some of the legislators brought members of the public to testify alongside them – a handy way to jump the queue.

When is suicide not suicide? One of the first people to testify – I failed to note if he was one of the sponsors – asserted that using the word “suicide” to describe self-administered death is a religious concept, and therefore the word “suicide” doesn’t belong in legislation. (“Aid in dying” was the preferred term used by the bill’s sponsors.) Nicole Stacy of the Family Institute of Connecticut countered this a few minutes later by saying, “My own definition of suicide comes from a standard dictionary, not the Bible.”

More of the same: three women testified as representatives of the National Association of Social Workers, all in favor of H. 1991, although they vigorously rejected the term “assisted suicide.” The principal spokeswoman stressed that in the view of NASW, “This is not euthanasia. This is not suicide.” She said that when the organization’s board took a vote on what position to take on this issue, “the right to self-determination outweighed all other arguments.”

Social workers approve of informed consent except when they don’t: When one of the women speaking on behalf of NASW mentioned that self-determination at end-of-life was comparable to self-determination in women’s reproductive health, a member of the committee spoke up. First, he read aloud the informed-decision language in H. 1991. You’re OK with that? The NASW rep said yes. So, continued the rep, how about putting that kind of language into effect for abortion? No, no, no, was the reply. “That wouldn’t be appropriate. It [presumably, the right to abort] is the law of the land.” There was no time for the follow-up I wanted the rep to ask: So what will happen to informed consent once so-called “aid in dying” is the law of the land?

Mixed message: Senator Denise Provost spoke briefly but forcefully. “State sanctioned assisted suicide is not a path this Commonwealth should go down.” She then asked her colleagues to consider the inconsistency of working to eliminate suicide among young people while encouraging suicide for other populations.

“Terminal”: H. 1991, as with most assisted-suicide legislation, is supposedly only for people who are “terminally ill.”  “Does anyone in this room believe doctors are infallible?” asked John Kelly of Second Thoughts Massachusetts. (See his testimony on New Hampshire’s 2014 assisted suicide bill for more about how Second Thoughts got its name: “the more people learn about assisted suicide, the more they oppose it.”) He noted that thousands of Americans every year outlive “terminal” diagnoses. One of them is JJ Hanson of the Patients Rights Action Fund, who testified after Kelly. Hanson is surviving glioblastoma (the same kind of brain cancer that killed Maggie Karner and that prompted Brittany Maynard to commit suicide) after receiving a “terminal” diagnosis. “I fortunately did not listen to my doctors.” He acknowledged that it hasn’t been easy, with times when he had trouble walking, talking, and even getting out of bed. He said candidly that if a bill like H. 1991 had been in effect during the most severe phase of his illness, he would have asked himself if ending his life would be easier. “I would not be speaking to you today. You can’t go back from that decision [suicide].” He said the Patients Rights Council is “opposed to making suicide the norm for terminally ill patients.”

“This misinformed movement:” Four Worcester County physicians testified as a single panel in opposition to H. 1991. Dr. Paul Carpentier, calling assisted-suicide promotion “this misinformed movement,” said “society should not want doctors to be involved in killing. The principle that physicians should not kill their patients is foundational.” He and his colleagues all warned about allowing the insurance industry to treat prescribed death as a medical treatment. Dr. Laura Lambert said that would create a “death panel in a bottle.” Dr. Mark Rollo: “This bill will put pressure on the vulnerable to choose death.” Dr. William Lawton was the last in the quartet to speak. He said he was speaking for the American College of Physicians in calling H. 1991 “dangerous to doctors and patients. This is not about our patients’ right to die, but about doctors’ right to kill. The safeguards [in the bill] are an illusion.”