Controlling our end-of-life medical care by Marjorie Arons Barron

The entry below is bewing cross posted from Marjorie Arons Barron’s own blog.

Judy Kugel’s beloved husband, Peter, suffered from advanced Parkinson’s and the residual effects of a stroke,which led him to the point where he could no longer bear to continue. If he had lived in Vermont or Oregon or one of several other states, he could have, while still mentally competent, requested medication that would have helped him to a peaceful end of life. In Massachusetts, he had to take things in his own hands, resolutely refusing food, drink and medication. It took eight days of suffering for him to die on his own terms.  And there are many others in Massachusetts facing this end-of-life care dilemma.

Why should a terminally ill 78-year-old woman wishing to die have to stop using her oxygen, decline food and meds, and suffer, unable to breathe, for days before death came? Why should an elderly man with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and inability to breathe, already in hospice, have to refuse food and drink to escape from prolonged and unbearable suffering when he could, if legalized, self-administer doctor-prescribed medicine for a peaceful passing?

The battle to give individuals who are terminally ill (in the last six months of their lives) the right to choose a medically assisted path to a more peaceful death has been going on for more than a decade. Since first introduced in Massachusetts, ten states and the District of Columbia have passed laws to pass just such humane measures, but our state legislature has never even sent the matter to the floor for a vote. That could change this year.

This, though 100 of the state’s legislators are co-sponsoring it, and polling indicates that as many as three quarters of the population favor it. The Mass. Medical Society, which once opposed the bill, has decided to remain neutral on it. The strongest opposition comes from the Church. But, according to Beacon Research, two thirds of Catholics and 71 percent of Protestants support this approach to end-of-life care.

Those who do not favor having control of their end-of-life health decisions don’t have to exercise the option. For adults who insist such compassionate choice is their right, there are clear-cut guidelines to prevent abuses. Two medical doctors (one, the individual’s attending physician) must independently confirm that a patient is in the last six months of life. Additionally, a mental health practitioner must attest to the mental competency of the person seeking medical aid in dying. Counseling would be mandated regarding risks, outcomes and alternatives like hospice or palliative care.

The request for a prescription must be in writing before two witnesses, at least one of whom would not benefit from the death of the individual. All sorts of official documents are required.  And no one could be eligible just for reasons of old age.

Last May 2nd, Vermont Governor Phil Scott signed an amendment to its 2023 medical-aid-in-dying law to strike a residency requirement. But why should terminally ill patients have to travel to Vermont to get such compassionate consideration?

We treat our dying pets more humanely when vets offer medication to end our four-legged family members’ awful suffering. Can’t we get the state legislature to allow human beings to request prescriptions that would provide them the gentle treatment that they want at the end?

This week, for the first time, the bill moved as far as the Senate Ways and Means Committee.  Majority Leader Cynthia Creem says there is a lot of support for the bill.  She herself has signed on, and, as she told me, it’s not her habit to sign on to bills. That’s a good portent.

So, this is the time for you to contact your state senator (S1331) and your state representative representative (H. 2246) and urge positive action on this bill, allowing dying people to control how they live and die in their last days of anguish.

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