A group that wants to give terminally ill patients in Massachusetts the option of ending their own lives with the help of their physicians is trying to get a ballot question before voters next year.
The Massachusetts Death with Dignity Coalition has filed paperwork with the state attorney general's office seeking approval of ballot language that also would be included on a petition.
The group's proposal would allow adult Massachusetts residents who have been given a prognosis of six months or less to live to obtain drugs that would end their lives.
Supporters say the proposal would give patients more control of their end-of-life care.
"The act gives patients dignity, control, and peace of mind during their final days with their families and loved ones," said Steve Crawford, spokesman for the coalition. "These are very intimate personal choices that should remain in the hands of the individual not the government."
Under the proposal, patients must request the drugs from their doctor both verbally and in writing. A second physician must agree on the patient's condition and medical outlook, and ensure the patient understands his or her medical condition and the effects of taking the drug. Patients would not be allowed to receive the drug because of their age or a disability.
If either doctor suspects the patient is suffering from a psychological disorder or depression that could impair their judgment, they must refer the patient to counseling. Doctors also must inform patients of alternatives, such as pain management or hospice care, and recommend they talk with relatives.
"It encourages an honest conversation between doctors, patients and families," Crawford said.
Patients would have to wait 15 days to receive a prescription and could rescind their decision at any time. At least one of the two witnesses to the patient's written request cannot be a family member, the patient's doctor, or be entitled to any part of the patient's estate upon death.
The proposal would not legalize euthanasia, meaning a third party could not perform the act that causes a patient's death, such as a lethal injection. Patients would have to ingest the pills themselves.
Opponents of the practice say medical professionals should focus on providing end-of-life care that supports and comforts patients physically and emotionally.
"We have so many effective therapies and treatments in our arsenal now that can really relieve patients of the distress and suffering people experience at the end of life," said Margaret Murphy, executive director of the Hospice & Palliative Care Federation of Massachusetts.
Religious organizations have also argued that end-of-life care should not include physician-assisted suicide.
"We are in support of any type of palliative care that relieves a patient's pain, but that does not promote a quicker end to life," said James Driscoll, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.
The proposal does not permit doctors to provide a lower standard of care to dying patients, and supporters say even if a patient chooses not to take the drugs it is a comfort to know they have the option.
A terminally person who wants to choose a way to die that lessens their suffering and the emotional pain it inflicts on family members should have that choice, said Rep. Louis Kafka, D-Stoughton.
Kafka is sponsoring a bill that would establish a similar process for physician-assisted suicide, but he is not involved in the coalition's efforts to put a ballot question before voters.
If the attorney general approves the petition, advocates will have to collect the signatures of nearly 69,000 registered voters and overcome other obstacles to put the question on the November 2012 state ballot.
Massachusetts would become the fourth state to legalize physician-assisted suicide if voters approved the ballot question.
Oregon and Washington passed laws, and Montana's Supreme Court determined that assisted suicide is a medical treatment.
This program aired on August 24, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.