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Area residents join in debate over physician-assisted suicide ballot question

Area residents are joining the intensifying statewide debate over whether Massachusetts should allow physician-assisted suicide.

Question 2 on the Nov. 6 state election ballot calls for a bill that would permit physicians licensed in Massachusetts under specified conditions to prescribe life-ending medication to a terminally ill patient who request it.

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Among those advocating for passage of the “Death with Dignity” ballot question is Heather Clish of Reading, whose terminally ill father died last year in a physician-assisted suicide in his home state of Oregon, which permits the practice.

“I fundamentally believe that terminally ill patients should have a right to this choice,” she said. “And that belief was confirmed through the experience I had with my dad and seeing the relief and comfort it gave him to have access to this choice and ultimately to use it as a brain tumor was killing him.”

Jerry Costello, a registered nurse and a hospice volunteer from Haverhill, believes the ballot question should be rejected because of flaws in the bill, including that it does not require a psychiatric evaluation of patients, or family notification.

As a hospice volunteer, “I’ve talked with family members who have told me some of their best times spent with [a dying patient] are the last few days,” Costello said. “Not only would the family be denied that, but the patient would also be denied those times.”

Costello said he has also had patients “who have gotten better and come off hospice. . . . Who can really predict when someone is going to die?”

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Those in physical pain should not need to resort to suicide, Costello said. “I think true death with dignity for me is for all efforts to go into palliative care for the patient,” he said. “In this day and age, there is no reason why anyone has to suffer physically.”

The proposed legislation is modeled after existing physician-assisted suicide laws in the two states where it is legal, Oregon and Washington.

The proposed law sets specific criteria for someone to receive life-ending medication. Included is that the patient be an adult who is medically determined to be mentally capable of making and communicating health care decisions and who has been diagnosed as having an incurable disease that will cause death within six months.

The campaign for a “Yes” vote is led by the ballot group Dignity 2012, with support from others ranging from the AIDS Action Committee   to the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts

Opposition to the ballot question is led by the Committee Against Physician Assisted Suicide. On its website, the committee lists groups ranging from the Massachusetts Medical Society   to the Hospice and Palliative Care Federation of Massachusetts  as being opposed to physician-assisted suicide.

Clish said she got involved in the vote yes campaign because her father had recently died and she realized “I may be one of the only people in Massachusetts that knows how this works. I had seen the comfort it provides.” She ended up authoring the official statement from supporters of Question 2 that is included in the voter information booklet for the state election.

Her father was diagnosed with incurable brain cancer in late 2010, and opted to take his life-ending medication the following March at a time when he was entering hospice and all attempts to slow the disease had failed, Clish said.

“My dad knew he wanted to die in the comfort of his own home; competent and aware instead of detached and sedated; on his own terms instead of those of a fatal disease that had already taken too much,” she wrote in the ballot statement. “My dad was already dying, but because of this law, he could say goodbye to those he loved, with dignity and grace in my mother’s arms.”

State Representative John Keenan, a Salem Democrat, was prompted to support the ballot question by his experience seeing his mother die of lung cancer in 1994.

“If you’ve spent the night with a parent watching them slip away, you’d like to think there was an opportunity for them if they really wanted it, to stop the pain. . . . I think it’s appropriate to give people that choice.”

But Rabbi David Meyer of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead  also cites problems with the legislation.

“Everybody wants our loved ones to die compassionately and to die with dignity,” Meyer said. “But when you look carefully at the bill and at the legislation itself, it is so badly written and has so many flaws that it lead me to oppose its passage.

“We know that terminally ill men and women often suffer depression for reasons that are quite obvious. But depression can be treated, and not requiring a psychiatric evaluation is a major flaw.

“What I’ve encouraged is that in order to create this kind of death with dignity, that we . . . continue to inform people about the palliative care available, the hospice care,” he said. “There’s been tremendous strides in the last decade with how the pain of the terminally ill is able to be managed.”

State Senator Patricia Jehlen, a Somerville Democrat, said she is a strong supporter of hospice and palliative care, citing legislation she helped pass that extends hospice care to all Medicaid patients.

But Jehlen supports the ballot question because “I know with palliative care there are limits with some people. Pain cannot always be controlled without losing clarity and consciousness. I think some people want to have the ability to make those choices.”

Her late father, Paul Deats, who was a professor of social ethics at Boston University’s School of Theology and a Methodist minister, studied the issue of physician-assisted suicide with other theologians. Jehlen believes he would have supported the ballot question.

“He certainly would not have said he would advise anyone to do it,” she said, “but he would have wanted them to have the choice.”

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.

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