On Nov. 6, Massachusetts voters will decide whether physicians may provide a dying patient, whose suffering has become unbearable, with medication to bring about an earlier, more peaceful death if the patient chooses and the physician agrees. On the ballot will be a Death with Dignity Act — Question 2 — that is virtually identical to the law that has been in effect in Oregon for nearly 15 years.
Good palliative care is adequate for the great majority of dying patients, but not all. Most pain can be eased, but other symptoms are harder to deal with — weakness, loss of control of bodily functions, shortness of breath, and nausea — and the drugs to treat these symptoms often produce unacceptable side effects. Even worse for many dying patients is the existential suffering. They know their condition is inexorably downhill, and they find it meaningless to soldier on.