Dec 7, 2023 - Politics

Mass. assisted suicide debate picks up speed

Illustration of the Massachusetts State House with lines radiating from it.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

A push to legalize medically assisted suicide in Massachusetts is gaining traction 12 years after voters said no to letting terminally ill patients access lethal drugs.

What's happening: A bill before lawmakers would allow patients who are expected to die within six months to be given life-ending drugs.

  • The bill would set up mental health evaluations and safeguards meant to prevent patients from being pressured into ending their lives prematurely.

Flashback: Voters rejected legalizing physician-assisted suicide at the ballot in 2012 by a very thin margin — just 51%.

  • Aid in dying hasn't become a priority for the Democratic leaders of the Legislature over the past 12 years, since it's seen by many lawmakers as a settled issue.

The other side: Opponents say allowing lethal drugs would disproportionately affect the elderly, disabled, mentally ill and those who see themselves as a burden.

  • "Instead of alleviating suffering, physician-assisted suicide eliminates the sufferer," Christian advocacy group Massachusetts Family Institute director of community alliances Michael King told lawmakers at a State House hearing in October.

Between the lines: Much like updating sexual education laws, assisted suicide is considered a "hard vote" on Beacon Hill because the Catholic Church, and many vocal voters, oppose it.

Yes, but: The public could be ready to embrace the practice, with a recent poll finding that nearly 80% of Mass. voters say they support aid in dying with safeguards.

  • National organizers see Massachusetts as a priority since 12 years have passed since the near-loss last decade.
  • Over 41% of House members and 45% of senators are already signed on to versions of the legislation.

The big picture: Medically assisted suicide is legal in 10 states and Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, the state's highest court ruled against physician-assisted suicide last year, saying there is no right to it found in the state constitution's Declaration of Rights.

  • The court did not rule out legislative action legalizing physician-assisted suicide.
  • The Supreme Judicial Court suggested that voters encourage lawmakers to "enact laws, and to craft appropriate procedural safeguards, with respect to one of the only human experiences that will affect us all."

What's next: Even though only a dozen or so lawmakers need to sign on for the bill to have majority support in the Legislature, Democratic leaders would need to schedule a vote before the summer to change the law.

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