Massachusetts Death With Dignity Act: A Crime That Anyone Would Oppose It

As my readers know, this blog is normally reserved for strictly legal issues of criminal law – case decisions, primers on certain areas of Massachusetts criminal law, and backgrounders on criminal trial procedure.

Today I want to talk about a different crime of crime -a crime that’s not on the books in this state, yet goes on every day across not only the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, but indeed most of this nation. A crime that is both cruel and stunning, when one spends more than a minute thinking about it. That crime is the present legal inability of a terminally ill patient to choose a dignified and painless death, instead of a prolonged and dignity-robbing end to his or her life. Specifically, I’m talking about the ballot proposal that Massachusetts voters (that is, the voters who actually choose to spend fifteen minutes to go to their local polling place and actually vote,) will be offered this November. The ballot is Question Two, and is entitled “Massachusetts Death With Dignity Act.” This important ballot question, if passed by voters, would allow a physician who is licensed in Massachusetts to prescribe medication, at the request of a terminally ill patient who meets certain enumerated conditions, to end that person’s life.

As a Massachusetts criminal defense attorney, who sees the most hardened of criminal convicts treated with more dignity than this, I simply cannot believe that any compassionate, rational person would oppose this measure. It does nothing more than allow a terminally ill patient – if he or she wishes – to hasten an already inevitable, unavoidable, probably painful and undignified death. This is not suicide nor is it euthanasia, where someone else makes the decision and takes the steps necessary to end the patient’s life. Under this ballot proposal, which is modeled after similar laws approved by voters in three other states including Washington state and Oregon, a terminally ill patient will have the option of choosing a painless and dignified death if the PATIENT HIMSELF decides that his or her quality of life has become too degraded and/or too painful to continue on, when death is inevitable. NO ONE ELSE OTHER THAN THE PATIENT IS PERMITTED TO MAKE THAT DECISION under this ballot initiative.

However, reason and rationale, never mind compassion, often don’t rule in such public policy debates. So, enter the doomsayers and the “catastrophizers,” as I call them. The Chicken Littles of such public policy debates, who run around screaming “The Sky Is Falling!, The Sky Is Falling!” In the debate over death with dignity, they run around proclaiming that if such a law is passed, “People will be killed left and right! Doctors will be chasing sick and elderly with lethal medications! The Death Police will run hospitals and nursing homes! Anyone with more than a common cold will end up dead! Everyone will go to hell! God will punish you! Oh, no! Oh, no! Oh, no!”

Almost always, these doomsayers and catastrophizers are from the religious right and right-leaning conservative groups. It’s worth noting that these same religious types and “moralists” made similar predictions following the SJC’s decision on same-sex marriage, in Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health, 798 N.E.2d 941 (Mass. 2003.) In that debate, these “moralists” predicted the end of moral civilization as we knew it. To listen to them, gay couples would be having open sex in the streets everywhere, our society a reflection of Romanesque moral decline. They’re also the same right-leaning groups that predicted the decriminalization possessing one ounce or less of pot would lead to the decay of lawful society, with people stumbling through the streets smoking pot, a veritable
“Woodstocking” of Massachusetts, if you will. Funny, years into that law’s passage, no one that I know has seen the slightest of problems follow these “Doomsday” forecasts. Has that stopped these Doomsayers at all with their present declarations about the right to die proposal?

Not in the slightest. These same sanctimonious, pious types will actually tell someone, with a straight face, that if they are terminally ill, suffering physically, or otherwise robbed of their dignity by their disease (think Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Alzheimer’s Disease, terminal, incurable cancer and a host of horrid ends,) they have no right to direct the manner and course of their own end of life. That they “don’t have that right.”

While these people claim to be “moral,” their position on this issue shocks the moral conscience of any sentient person. I’ll discuss more of this ballot proposal and why it should pass – overwhelmingly – in my next post.

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