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Mass. Lawmakers Hear Emotional Appeals On Medical Aid In Dying Bill

The legislative season ended at midnight on Sunday. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
The legislative season ended at midnight on Sunday. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

When the time comes, Michael Martignetti isn't sure whether he'll ask his doctor for medication to end his life peacefully. But he wants that option to be there.

"If one day I am terminally ill and I am facing a drawn-out, painful death, I would want the option of medical aid in dying," said Martignetti, who has a degenerative neuromuscular disease. "I don't know if I will use it, but I know I want the peace of mind that I can use it, if I choose."

The 58-year-old Lexington man spoke slowly from his wheelchair Tuesday to members of the Legislature's Public Health Committee as the panel heard emotionally charged testimony over right-to-die legislation.

Massachusetts voters narrowly rejected a ballot question in 2012 that would have allowed doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs to the terminally ill. Several other states, including California and neighboring Vermont, have since approved laws permitting them, and supporters say recent polls indicate a majority of Massachusetts residents now favor giving the choice to seek physician-assisted death to those whose medical options have been exhausted.

"It's not a question of whether they are going to die. They are going to die," said Democratic Sen. Barbara L'Italien, a lead sponsor of the bill. "This is about whether they have the right to decide whether they are going to end pain and suffering."

Doctors groups have long opposed such laws, which they call physician-assisted suicide, as has the Roman Catholic Church and right-to-life organizations.

The Massachusetts Medical Society on Tuesday reiterated its position against the bill, saying it was incompatible with the role of doctors as healers. But the group also said it was surveying its 25,000 member physicians to gauge their views on the subject, with the results expected in December.

The American College of Physicians also reaffirmed its opposition earlier this month.

Dr. Mark Rollo, a physician from Fitchburg, told the committee he worries that low-income residents, minorities and those with disabilities will be pressured to end their lives prematurely.

"We should not be steering vulnerable people toward suicide," Rollo said. "Once legalized, assisted suicide becomes a cheap medical procedure upon which cash-strapped governments and profit-minded insurance companies will increasingly rely."

The bill under consideration in Massachusetts establishes a number of conditions before life-ending medication can be prescribed. Patients must make requests both orally and in writing; a physician must certify they have an incurable disease that will almost certainly cause death within six months; and a mental health professional must determine the patient is of sound mind and making the decision without duress.

While no doctor would be forced to prescribe lethal drugs, Catholic hospitals object to language that appears to require dissenting physicians to refer patients to doctors willing to provide aid in dying.

"If I'm not willing to kill my patient, then I must pay to send them to someone who will?" asked Kristine Correia, a physician's assistant and representative of the group Witness for Life.

Oregon was the first state to adopt an aid-in-dying law, in 1997. California adopted its law after 29-year-old Brittany Maynard, who was dying from brain cancer, had to move to Oregon in 2014 so she could end her life.

Maynard's husband, Dan Diaz, told Massachusetts lawmakers that his wife's only choice was between two forms of dying.

"One was gentle, the other would be terrifying and filled with unrelenting pain," he said.

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