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A Case for Supporting Question 2

Dianne Williamson's article about why she supports the Massachusetts Death with Dignity initiative was originally published on the Worcester Telegram & Gazette website.

Jeannette Parker never asked much of her children. So her daughter was devastated when she could not grant her mother's last and perhaps most crucial plea—to help her die.

The Auburn woman had been fighting an aggressive brain tumor for almost five years when she agreed to hospice care. But despite the staff's best efforts, Ms. Parker was riddled with agonizing pain and dependent on others for her basic needs.

"It was, unfortunately, very terrible," said her daughter, Liz Parker Gagne. "As hard as they tried, hospice couldn't bring her relief, peace or comfort. She wanted someone to help her die, and no one could. There was a part of me that wanted to do that for her. But I have a toddler, and couldn't do it without putting my role of a mother in jeopardy. As my mother's caregiver, I felt guilt and failure."

If it passes Nov. 6, the "Death with Dignity Act" comes too late for Ms. Parker, who died this summer at 63. But her daughter is among those who believe that terminally ill patients should have the option of ending their lives when they choose, rather than be required by the state to endure unbearable suffering before they die.

Question 2 on the ballot would allow a physician to prescribe life-ending drugs to a person who has six months or less to live. Many safeguards are built into the measure to thwart abuse; the patient must be determined capable of making the decision; must express a wish to die on two occasions, 15 days apart; and must administer the drugs himself. Doctors, too, must follow a strict set of guidelines. No physician would be forced to participate.

"This is something my mom wanted for herself and it wasn't available to her," Parker Gagne said. "The quality of her life was so terrible, that she didn't want to fight anymore and was ready to die. My mother had no hope for a cure or any improvement—only continued decline and increasing pain."

Regardless of the ability of Question 2 to end needless suffering, opposition is fierce. The Catholic Church, never shy of being on the wrong side of history, is spearheading the battle against the measure, preaching that suicide is a grave sin and human life is sacred. Catholic and conservative Christian groups from outside the state have contributed most of the $900,000 raised by opponents. That compares to $310,000 raised by Dignity 2012, the committee backing the referendum.

"Question 2 takes us forward and opponents want to take us backward," said Stephen Crawford, spokesman for Dignity 2012. "This is a progression of what our culture is going through. People are living longer than they ever have before … We're trying to put the control in the hands of terminally ill people so they can determine when their suffering is enough. It's certainly the most profound question on the ballot. This isn't the bottle bill."

Suzanne Doiron-Schiavone of Worcester, a hospice social worker for a decade, said she's "lost count" of the patients who have asked that their deaths been hastened. She's a strong supporter of Question 2 and of providing choices to dying patients, although she stressed that she's not speaking for the hospice community.

"Most of the time, hospice does an amazing job alleviating people's pain and suffering," said Doiron-Schiavone, of Jewish Healthcare Hospice. "But not always. People who are terminally ill don't want to die, but that choice has been taken out of their hands by their disease. This is not about suicide … I can't tell you how many family members have said, ‘We know when our animals have had enough suffering. We take them to the vet when it's time. But we don't have that same option as human beings.' "

Since the bill's inception in 1997 in Oregon, one of two states along with Washington to allow Death with Dignity, 935 people have had prescriptions written and 596 patients have ended their lives by taking the drugs. In order, the reasons mentioned most were: decreased ability to take part in activities that made life enjoyable; loss of autonomy; and loss of dignity.

Clearly, then, not all agonies of the dying involve physical pain, and not all of the opposition makes sense. The Massachusetts Medical Society is opposed to Question 2 because it's incompatible with doctors' oath to "first, do no harm." But in the course of human experience, I can't imagine more harm than to unnecessarily prolong the suffering of the dying.

"I worry that some people might think it heartless to support Question 2," said Parker Gagne. "But we loved our mother so much that we wished for her suffering to be over. It was a very strange and difficult feeling to be wishing for our mother's death, yet it was true and real and right."

So is voting "Yes" on Question 2. 

Posted on October 25, 2012 in Massachusetts, New England, Personal Stories

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