On election day in November, Massachusetts will also vote on a referendum on assisted suicide – or, as its supporters call it, assisted dying. On July 31 Boston Globe featured parallel statements by a leading advocate of the measure and a leading foe.
Marcia Angell is a former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine and a senior lecturer in social medicine at Harvard Medical School. She argues that because the proposed bill, which is “virtually identical” to Oregon’s Death with Dignity law, has already been found roadworthy there, Massachusetts voters should have no hesitation in supporting it.
Although the peak doctors’ body in the state, the Massachusetts Medical Society (MMS), staunchly opposes assisted suicide, Dr Angell believes conventional arguments, like “physicians are only healers”, “physicians should never participate in taking life”, and “patients who request assisted dying may be suffering from treatable depression”, are wrong. She acknowledges that palliative care can relieve pain in most cases, but, she says, existential suffering can be even worse for patients:
“They know that their condition will grow worse day after day until their deaths, that their course is inexorably downhill, and they find it meaningless to soldier on. Why should anyone -- the state, the medical profession, or anyone else -- presume to tell someone else how much suffering they must endure while dying? Doctors should stand with their patients, not against them.”
The spokeswoman for the opposing view is Barbara A.Rockett, a physician at Newton-Wellesley Hospital and a former president of the Massachusetts Medical Society. She argues that “To substitute physician-assisted suicide for care represents an abandonment of the patient by the physician.”
She reminds readers that, by and large, doctors do not support assisted suicide. In Massachusetts, more than 75% of member of the MMS oppose it. And this is true at a national level as well. At a meeting in 2003, the AMA went on record to say, “Physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer, would be difficult or impossible to control, and would impose serious societal risks.” She concludes:
“Physician-assisted suicide has been falsely advertised as death with dignity. Believe me, there is nothing dignified about suicide. I ask the voters of this Commonwealth, as they enter the voting booth, to vote for dignity for life and not for death. Please vote no on physician-assisted suicide.”
The clash in the Bay State is important. If voters approve the referendum, other New England states could follow suit. The state has a strong medical tradition. The Massachusetts Medical Society is the oldest of its kind in the US. Ironically, it is the publisher of the New England Journal of Medicine, which supports assisted suicide and is the country's leading medical journal.