Massachusetts legislators are attempting to revive proposed legislation that has been rejected multiple times — most recently last year — that would allow doctors to prescribe lethal medications to help terminally ill patients die.
The most recent step in that renewed effort was an emotional hearing for both attendees and legislators at the State House on Tuesday that ran well over the allotted six hours.
“It took 10 long days for him to die, and I was there with him, watching him grimace,” said radio personality Diane Rehm about her husband, John, who died from Parkinson’s disease in 2014. “In the end, he died a very painful, elongated death which I will never, ever forget.”
Rehm, who traveled from Washington, D.C. to speak about her late husband, was one of over 125 advocates, opponents and concerned citizens who lined up to testify before the Joint Committee on Public Health for companion bills seeking to legalize medical aid in dying.
During Rehm's testimony, Rep. Michael Soter grew visibly emotional and shared his personal experience with his ailing father.
“How does this legislation take this guilt and pain away?" Soter asked in earnest, referencing the suffering experienced not only by the patient, but by his family and friends.
Opponents were also out in force. Anita Cameron, director of minority outreach for Not Dead Yet, a disability rights group, testified that if the bill is passed, disabled and minority populations would be at “particular risk” of being harmed by health care systems that are “inherently racist.”
“As a black Latina, I could never wrap my head around this assisted-suicide phenomena,” said Cameron, 53, who has multiple disabilities. “I thought it was some odd thing that privileged white people were into.”
The two bills adopt many of the conditions that were established in Oregon, which was the first state in the country to legalize medical aid in dying — sometimes referred to as physician-assisted suicide — in 1997.
The legislature is restarting the process for the bills, but it is not moving quickly.
“I would not expect to see this come out of committee within the next several weeks,” said Sen. Rebecca Rausch, who serves on the committee and supports the legislation.
To be eligible for medical aid in dying under the proposed legislation, a patient must be of sound mind and have a prognosis of six months or less to live. Additionally, a second physician must confirm the primary physician’s judgment and the patient must submit both written and oral requests.
The patient must also be seen by a mental health professional to establish that no psychiatric disorders are impairing judgment — a provision that is not included in the Oregon law but was first established by Hawaii, which enacted its own “Death with Dignity” Act at the beginning of the year.
“I think this legislation is very strongly written to respond to any concern that somebody might be doing this for the wrong reasons, that they might be under pressure, that they might be depressed,” said State Sen. William Brownsberger, a sponsor of the Senate bill, in an interview with NECIR.
In 2012, Massachusetts voters narrowly defeated a ballot initiative that would have allowed physicians to prescribe fatal doses of medication at a terminal patient’s request. The ballot failed with 51.9% voting against and 48.1% in favor.
In the Massachusetts Medical Society’s 2017 survey on medical aid in dying, 60% of the over 17,500 respondents supported the practice.
The society amended its policy of opposition to one of neutrality in December 2017. In its written testimony, submitted for Tuesday’s hearing, the society continued that stance.
Dr. Lachlan Forrow, a palliative care physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, does not consider himself an opponent, but does not support current legislation for what he calls physician-assisted suicide. He says there must first be a “reliable availability” and universal access to all other options, such as palliative care and hospice services.
As the legislative debate unfolds, there is also an ongoing lawsuit against the state and Attorney General Maura Healey.
In October 2016, Dr. Roger Kligler of Falmouth, Mass., sued the state for his right to receive lethal medication from his doctor for self-administration. Kligler has incurable stage four prostate cancer and also testified in support of the legislation on Tuesday.
Kligler is a volunteer for Compassion and Choices, a nonprofit organization based in Oregon that advocates for this practice. As a retired physician who practiced medicine for 32 years in Brockton, Mass., Kligler said he thinks this debate is more about self-determination.
“The bottom line is that we need to have autonomy for an individual,” said Kligler in a phone interview. “I feel like this is something that’s going to happen, and hopefully it’s sooner rather than later for the people who are suffering now. They don’t have time to wait.”
Anastasia Lennon is an intern for the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news center based at Boston University and WGBH News.