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Legatus Magazine

Cover Story
Sabrina Arena Ferrisi | author
Oct 01, 2012
Filed under Featured

Death in Massachusetts

Ballot Question 2 presents Bay State voters with a life or death decision in November . . .

Dr. Kenneth Stevens has been fighting doctor-assisted suicide for more than 30 years. The Oregon oncologist regularly has patients request it. He has steadfastly refused.

Euthanasia first reared its ugly head in Stevens’ life in 1982 — 12 years before Oregon legalized doctor-assisted suicide — when he brought his terminally ill wife to her doctor. Her lymphoma had spread to her brain, spine and bones. There was nothing more curatively that could be done.

“As we were about to leave, the doctor said, subtly, that he could write a prescription for an extra large dose of pain medication,” Stevens recalls. “We said no, that we had sufficient pain medication. Then as we got into the car, my wife said, ‘He wanted me to kill myself.’

“It devastated her and devastated me that her trusted doctor would say such a thing. Though she had had a lot of suffering, that experience — that her doctor would feel that her life was no longer of any value — was the greatest suffering.”

Human dignity

Next month, Massachusetts voters will decide whether or not to legalize doctor-assisted suicide on Ballot Question 2. Stevens has joined a coalition fighting on the side of life in the Bay State. The coalition includes disability rights groups, physicians groups, and religious organizations. They want this Pandora’s Box nailed shut because they know its negative consequences.

While most people think assisted suicide would only be used for people with terminal conditions, this has not been the case in places where it’s legal — Oregon, Montana, Washington state, Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg.

Dr. Kenneth Stevens

“Assisted suicide is being sold as something for people near death,” Stevens said. “But that’s not what’s happening. They aren’t choosing this because of pain. They choose it because they don’t want to be dependent.”

The Death with Dignity Act (Oregon’s assisted suicide law) 2011 Annual Report shows that the top five reasons for requesting assisted suicide were “loss of autonomy” (88.7%), “less able to engage in activities” (90.1%), and “loss of dignity” (74.6%).

Amy Hasbruck, board chairman of the disability rights group Not Dead Yet, calls these “disability issues,” which shouldn’t require assisted suicide. She said it reflects the insulting notion that the disabled somehow lack dignity.

Another serious issue is treatment rationing for the elderly and the terminally ill.

“We fought hard against ObamaCare because it will cause rationing, which applies to people at the end of their life,” said Robin Loughman, chair of Massachusetts Alliance Against Doctor-Prescribed Suicide. “The last six months of life are the most expensive. When there are limited resources, a dying person is a sitting duck.”

In Oregon, health care companies regularly refuse to pay for treatment, while offering assisted-suicide coverage.

“Barbara Wagner was a 64-year-old grandmother four years ago,” Stevens explains. “She had lung cancer which went away, then came back. The Oregon Health Plan sent her a letter which said it wouldn’t cover Tarceva — a pill which would slow the cancer down — but it would cover palliative care, which included doctor-assisted suicide.”

Wagner immediately contacted the press, launching a public complaint that the state would pay for her to die, but not to live. Tarceva’s manufacturer finally decided to pay for her medication for a year.

Randy Strope, another Oregonian, was in the fight of his life with prostate cancer in 2008. Oregon Health Plan sent him a letter denying coverage for treatment, offering doctor-assisted suicide instead. Strope fought back publicly, forcing Oregon Health Plan to reverse its decision.

Ballot measure

The Massachusetts ballot on assisted suicide, like Oregon, would not require doctors to seek psychiatric evaluations for patients who request it. Ray Flynn, former Boston mayor and former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, is concerned.

“When I was mayor, I used to do a lot of work with the homeless and depressed,” he explained. “I saw so many people despondent and in pain, and sometimes they took their own life. I look at them as precious citizens. We should be helping them get the proper care, not play into their depression. If this becomes our new policy, it’s a collapse of our value system.”

Question 2 also specifies that doctor-assisted suicide is only for those who have six months left to live. Yet most doctors will admit that a terminal diagnosis is never exact.

Deacon Steven Marcus

“I owned a hospice and a nursing home, which allowed people to die with dignity,” said Deacon Steven Marcus, a member of Legatus’ Western Massachusetts Chapter who has organized a grassroots campaign against assisted suicide.

“Many times people were given a diagnosis that they had six months to live, and they would live much, much longer — even years,” he said.

The disability-rights community is especially off ended by assisted-suicide legislation because they say it discriminates against the disabled and the elderly.

“If you look at the assisted suicide issue, it doesn’t seem bad at first,” said Hasbruck of Not Dead Yet. “But on second thought, if you look at the profit-driven health-care system — and the family pressure — then you see that the choice is not free. Supposedly it’s about people with terminal illnesses, but it includes those with chronic disabilities, too.”

When a person becomes disabled, she explained, they go through the five stages of grief.

“With assisted suicide, instead of letting them go through the stages, they tell them to give up,” said Hasbruck, herself disabled. “People are afraid of the physical nature of our humanity. They think they’d rather be dead than be like us. People think it’s undignified to be incontinent.”

One of the biggest arguments for assisted suicide is that no one should have to suffer pain. “They witness someone who dies without adequate pain relief,” she said, “but we know that doctors make mistakes. People need to push for better care.”

In fact, in countries and states that have assisted suicide, doctors who take part in it are often deficient in pain management as well as basic medical care. The lack of good pain management has been well-documented in Holland, a nation with only two hospices. According to the Remmelink Report, one-third of the 3,340 people euthanized in Holland in 1990 were killed without their permission. Hospice was not available at the time.

Also troubling: Massachusetts’ Question 2 has no safeguards for elder abuse. A provision allows an heir or potentially abusive caregiver to serve as a witness when a patient signs up for the lethal dose of drugs, yet no witnesses are required when the patient takes the prescription.

The diversity of groups opposed to Question 2 is telling: the Massachusetts Medical Society, the American Medical Association, Doctors Against Suicide, a network of hospices, nurses and doctors, and various disability rights groups. These groups have little funding compared to the right-to-die organizations, who have backers like George Soros.

“I didn’t go into medicine to kill people,” said Stevens. “And there’s no place for a doctor in causing death.”

Sabrina Arena Ferrisi is Legatus magazine’s senior staff writer.


Martha and Mary Ministries

When Oregon legalized doctor-assisted suicide in 1994, a group of Catholic nurses, clergy and concerned citizens in Portland, Ore., got together to formulate a response. In 2010, they founded a hospice called Martha and Mary Ministries.

“We had a sense that the world was changing and asked, ‘What can we do to convince the world that this isn’t needed?’” said Patricia Cary, executive director of Martha and Mary Ministries. A family who had raised 12 children in their house donated the building to the organization. The ministry transformed it into a home which cares for five residents at a time. Nurses and volunteers work with residents around the clock.

Elder care in people’s own homes can be a strain on family members’ time and resources. As a result, our culture tends to demean the elderly by sending the signal that they aren’t worth the effort, Cary said.

“What we want is for this home to be a symbol of how to take care of people at the end of their lives,” she said. “There is a sense of peace and brightness here. We want this place to be an example. We want to convince people that they are worthwhile.”

Martha and Mary volunteers cook, garden, and act as “compassionate companions” who spend time with the residents throughout the day. Three members of Legatus’ Portland Chapter are members of the Martha and Mary board.

“The mission is to promote dignity at the end of life through compassionate care and presence, spiritual support and education,” said Legate Tricia Heffernan, a Martha and Mary board member. “We were named for the sisters who were friends of Jesus. So we are an active and contemplative ministry.”

Martha and Mary Ministries’ supporters say Oregon’s assisted suicide law is the wrong approach. Heffernan says there are many grace-filled moments before people are called home to heaven — moments that would be violated by assisted suicide.

“Martha and Mary Ministries is a light in the darkness,” she said. “Nobody here dies alone. They have dignity and hope at the end of life.”

— Sabrina Arena Ferrisi


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