Massachusetts Considers Assisted Suicide Bill

Assisted suicide is up for discussion again at the Massachusetts State House – for the eighth time, according to the Boston Herald. The Joint Committee on Public Health held a public hearing on September 26 on a pair of bills “relative to end of life options” (H.1194 and S.1225).  I went to Boston to stand alongside Massachusetts residents giving public witness against state-sponsored medically-prescribed killing.

Outreach

I was happy to meet C.J. Williams, a Brighton resident who’s director of outreach and education with Rehumanize International. We had connected online some weeks ago regarding the life issues. She greeted me outside the State House and introduced me to other people who had come to fight the bills. She then spent an hour calmly engaged in sidewalk conversations with people inquiring about the legislation, before she headed into the State House for the hearing.

C.J. Williams of Rehumanize International. (Photos by Ellen Kolb.)
Full House

The hearing room was full, with strong feelings and beliefs evident on all sides. Sponsors and supporters of the bills talked about safeguards, autonomy, choice, and “gentle passing.” That last term was offered by Dan Diaz, widower of Brittany Maynard, now an activist with Compassion and Choices. C&C is the current avatar of what was once the Hemlock Society.

Consequences

The hearing was scheduled to last all afternoon, and I was only able to stay for the first hour. One of the people I heard was Kristine Correira, a physician’s assistant, who warned of the threat posed to Catholic hospitals by the proposed law. She testified that the bills would require health care providers unwilling to participate in assisted suicide to refer patients to other providers – and to pay for the transfer – in violation of the conscience rights of providers opposing medically-prescribed killing. “Is it your intention to close down all the Catholic hospitals?” A fair question, and one which remained unanswered at the time I left.

The Boston Herald’s account of the hearing mentioned testimony from Timothy Shriver, son of the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of Special Olympics. “Beware the law of unintended consequences,” he said. People with disabilities are “vulnerable to the calculations of human values.”

The Hampshire Gazette’s coverage of the hearing included a warning from Jacqueline Rivers, executive director of the Seymour Institute on Black Church and Policy Studies, about the legislation’s potential effect on people living in poverty. “Poor black and brown people will be affected by the subtleties of societal pressure.”

The Gazette report continued, “[Rivers] said those communities are often underserved already when it comes to palliative and hospice care and the availability of physician-assisted end-of-life options might put pressure on poor families to make a choice not to spend money on treatment and care if this bill were passed.”

By any other name…
Posted in the State House hallway: bills are described as “aid-in-dying.”

On the way to the hearing room, I saw a notice affixed to a wall, pointing the way to the “Aid in Dying” hearing. The bills themselves are titled “End of Life.” One news outlet headlined its coverage with “…bill to allow terminally ill to end their lives peacefully,” while another went with “right to die.” I find “assisted suicide” a more apt term. There was no shortage of names for what was on the table.

At last count, six states and the District of Columbia have legalized assisted suicide.


 

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.”


Some background to this week’s Massachusetts hearing on assisted suicide

Destination: Beacon Hill.

My destination is Boston, in order to stand in solidarity with all who oppose a Massachusetts assisted suicide bill, and to honor the memory of Maggie Karner. I won’t be testifying, but as with every other life-issue bill, presence at the State House counts. I’ll be prepared to make short on-the-scene posts on the blog’s other social media platforms for as long as I can stay at the hearing.

What happens with Massachusetts House bill 1991 is sure to be duplicated in other states. The last time the state had an assisted suicide bill, New Hampshire and Connecticut faced the same challenge concurrently (and all three bills met the fate they deserved). A regionwide coalition opposed to assisted suicide prevailed that year. Nothing less is needed now.

I’ve come across two items that offer some background to the upcoming Massachusetts hearing. First, the Patients Rights Council has prepared a detailed analysis of the bill. More years ago than I can recall, the PRC’s executive director, Rita Marker, was the first person to bring my attention to the public policy implications of euthanasia and assisted suicide. The PRC analysis is worth reading in full. One point she highlights involves the conscience rights of health care providers who choose not to participate in assisted suicide. House bill 1991 would put them in an untenable position. From the PRC report:

The disclosure [that the provider does not participate in assisted suicide] requirements include, “at a minimum”: the mechanism the provider will use to make a referral to a willing provider, the complaint processes available to persons affected by the objecting provider and the fact that the unwilling provider must bear the cost of transferring a patient to a willing provider. Also, providers who are not willing to participate must describe internal and external complaint procedures to any person upon request as well as to a patient or the patient’s decision maker upon admission or at the time of initial receipt of health care…. However, the bill does not require any disclosure requirement from those who are willing to provide doctor-prescribed suicide. Why not?

Second is a news report from the Worcester Telegram (with my thanks to Stephen Mendelsohn for bringing it to my attention), covering a briefing on H. 1991 held earlier this week by disability rights organizations. John Kelly of Second Thoughts Massachusetts, who uses a wheelchair, spelled it out at the briefing: “I’ve been told to my face — and many people have thought it in my presence — that they would rather be dead than like me….That is not an uncommon prejudice in society, unfortunately. What the bill does is, people who have thought that all their lives now want to take action against themselves rather than get the assistance that they need and deserve.”

Second Thoughts Connecticut’s Facebook page has a wealth of links of interest to anyone following H. 1991 and similar bills. Check it out.

One step forward, two steps back: this week in other states

State House, Concord NH
What’s going on under other State House domes?

When it comes to life-issue legislation – and bills on most other topics, for that matter – the Granite State seldom breaks new ground. Watch what’s going on in other states, and you’ll have a good idea of what’s coming up in Concord. Here are a few of this week’s notable items.


NEBRASKA: On May 27, legislators repealed the state’s death penalty. They overrode Governor Pete Ricketts’s veto by a 30-19 vote. (Nebraska has a unicameral legislature.) From the New York Times coverage of the vote: “Opponents of the death penalty here were able to build a coalition that spanned the ideological spectrum by winning the support of Republican legislators who said they believed capital punishment was inefficient, expensive and out of place with their party’s values, as well as that of lawmakers who cited religious or moral reasons for supporting the repeal. Nebraska joins 18 other states and Washington, D.C., in banning the death penalty.”

New Hampshire’s last attempt to repeal the death penalty fell short of passage but gained surprising support from two prominent legislators who had previously been death penalty advocates. One heart at a time …

IDAHO: The federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals may or may not be the Circuit with the most decisions later overturned by the Supreme Court, depending on your source, but here’s the latest from those judges for what it’s worth. Today, they overturned Idaho’s Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. Grounds: parts are “unconstitutionally vague,” create an “undue burden,” and “it categorically bans some abortions before viability.” Help yourself to the whole decision.

CALIFORNIA: On May 26, a bill to compel pro-life pregnancy care centers to promote abortions was passed by the California Assembly. It now goes to the state senate. Apparently, abortion providers are having so much trouble appealing to women that they need to enlist privately-funded pregnancy care centers to help with publicity. See coverage in Breitbart and LifeNews.

Pending hearings in MASSACHUSETTS: Closer to home, Massachusetts Citizens for Life says two interesting bills will have hearings at the State House in Boston on June 2. One would lower the age of consent for abortion to 16, eliminating use of the state’s parental notification statute for minors aged 16 and above. The other, strongly supported by MCFL, would amend the definition of “clinic” in the general laws and would require inspection and licensing of non-hospital abortion facilities.

I recall writing two years ago about the statement by a New Hampshire Health and Human Services official that “there is no such thing as an abortion clinic” in our state. Definitions matter. It will be interesting to see how the Massachusetts bill fares.

 

 

Massachusetts voters favor abortion facility licensing

vote checkmarkFrom Massachusetts Citizens for Life: Voters in eleven legislative districts in Massachusetts had an advisory measure on last Tuesday’s ballot:

“SHALL THE STATE REPRESENTATIVE FROM THIS DISTRICT BE INSTRUCTED TO VOTE IN FAVOR OF LEGISLATION THAT REQUIRES ALL NON-HOSPITAL FACILITIES PERFORMING MORE THAN 10 ABORTIONS A YEAR TO BE LICENSED AS “CLINICS” AND TO BE INSPECTED AT LEAST EVERY TWO YEARS BY THE MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH?”

Voters in all eleven districts said “yes” by landslide majorities. This question was strictly advisory, but it puts the legislators for those districts on the spot – will they or won’t they heed what the voters said?

New Hampshire law doesn’t provide for initiative and referendum questions, although individual towns and cities can put questions on local ballots. Citizens may also petition local officials to enact a municipal ordinance. An interesting idea: what if New Hampshire residents get tired of waiting for the legislature to act, and try to get local action on abortion facility oversight? There’s no question that most known New Hampshire abortion facilities are located in “friendly” territory. Still, it would be interesting to hear what the neighbors say about subjecting abortion facilities to the same requirements that must be met by ambulatory care facilities. I’ll bet most of the neighbors think (incorrectly) that the requirements are already the same. They’re not.