Jim Carberry feels certain of one thing, and one thing only, when it comes to Question 2, the ballot measure that would legalize assisted suicide in Massachusetts: Given the option, his late wife, Margie, would have used it.
“She wasn’t herself,” he says of his wife, who died of a rare cancer in 2011 at age 51. “She was ‘the patient in room 214.’ She wasn’t able to be independent. My wife was many things, but dependent on other people was not one of them.”
The illness that claimed her life seemed innocuous at first. In 1995, she had trouble sticking her tongue out and a persistent headache. What seemed like a weird malady was eventually diagnosed as clival chordoma.
At the time, the Carberrys’ two children, Alissa and Andrea, were only 4 and 2. By the time they were approaching adolescence, Margie Carberry knew that seeing them reach adulthood was questionable.
“She asked the doctors if she would live to see them graduate from high school,” Carberry told me. “She was a mother.”
Question 2 would give patients with terminal diagnoses and six months or less to live the option of taking their lives. Proponents refer to it as Death with Dignity; opponents call it physician-assisted suicide, even though physicians are barely involved.
The measure has drawn the fierce opposition of the Catholic Church, among other religious leaders. Opposition to Question 2 has also become a fund-raising magnet for right-wing groups who seem to view it as an element of a left-wing, pro-gay agenda. The American Principles Project, which has donated $366,000 to fight the measure, opposes antibullying campaigns because its leaders believe they are part of a pro-gay agenda.
Opponents of the legislation have often focused on the progress made in the area of palliative care, arguing that the end of one’s life can be rendered much less painful than in years past.
They also say that many of those who would choose to die are depressed, and there is treatment for that, as well. Some have objected to something they feel is missing from the bill: a requirement to consult one’s family before making the decision to end one’s life.
Those are all reasonable points. But none of them really speaks to the basic question of whether people should have the right to decide they are ready to end their lives. The question isn’t whether one’s relatives agree with the decision, or believe they would choose a different path: It is about whether one has the right to make a decision that is as personal as decisions get.
Margie Carberry’s decline is sadly typical, and telling. The first few years of her illness, as her husband explains it, were terrible but bearable. In fact, at one point she was without symptoms, before her tumor returned with a vengeance in 2007.
This was followed by difficulty breathing. Then, because she could not swallow, she needed a tracheotomy and a feeding tube. Then her vision began to fail. Then doctors said that more chemotherapy was not an option. There really were not any options.
Meanwhile, Alissa had graduated from high school in 2008. Andrea graduated in 2011. The milestones their mother had been holding on for had been reached.
“She was beaming,” Jim Carberry says. “The week after graduation, she made the decision to discontinue her tube feed.”
She had reached the decision, her husband says, after consulting with clergy, and a trusted social worker, as well as a palliative care specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital. She wanted to die on her own terms.
“It was the only way she could see to end her suffering,” he said. “She wasn’t living; she was existing.” She died five weeks after discontinuing the tube feed.
Now, I have never had a terminal illness. I doubt that her choice would ever be my choice.
But one question continues to haunt me: Who is anyone else to say what Margie Carberry should have done?