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Growing a Grassroots Partnership in Massachusetts

June 24, 2019

In 2012, Death with Dignity National Center led the campaign for a ballot measure to pass an assisted-dying law in Massachusetts. At that time, only Oregon and Washington had enacted laws. While polls showed 58 percent of Massachusetts residents supported the ballot question about this end-of-life option, the measure lost narrowly 51 to 49 percent.

In the ensuing years, support for death with dignity has grown in the state and across the nation, as evidenced by the adoption of aid-in-dying laws in six states (Vermont, California, Colorado, Hawaii, New Jersey, and Maine) and Washington, D.C. since 2013. (Montana does not have a an assisted-dying statute, but a 2009 Supreme Court decision legalized the option.)

The 2019 Legislative Session

Massachusetts lawmakers are again considering death with dignity legislation in 2019; a hearing is scheduled for June 25. Death with Dignity staff will join our grassroots partner John Berkowitz, of Western Massachusetts Death with Dignity, Inc., along with six of seven members of the organizations Board of Directors, as well as many state-based supporters.

John Berkowitz (right), founder of Western Massachusetts Death with Dignity, with Dr. David Clive, long-time Professor of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester and a hospice physician in Newton.

“Right and Just and Needed”

For the past eight years, John, 72, has led aging support groups called “Living Fully, Aging Gracefully, and Befriending Death” in western Massachusetts. In candid conversations, he says, “End-of-life care and choices come up all the time by participants in these groups, including stories of people they were close to who had a very difficult dying process.”

In 2017, John began researching medical aid in dying as an end-of-life option that “seemed right, just, and needed.”

He learned a death with dignity bill had been introduced by state legislators —and that his representative was not a sponsor, even though his region had voted in the 2012 statewide ballot referendum strongly in favor of passage of such a law.

Forming an Organization

“Seven of us met with our legislator, had a good conversation, and a week later we learned he had signed onto the bill as a co-sponsor,” John recalls. “So we thought, OK, let’s keep going.”

Together, John and his fellow advocates formed a local nonprofit advocacy group, Western Massachusetts Death with Dignity, and, John says, “we are organizing community events throughout central and western Massachusetts as well as accompanying constituents who are death with dignity supporters at meetings with their legislators to discuss the issue with them.”

Statewide Advocacy

The organization’s recent accomplishments include persuading the Northampton and Amherst City Councils to pass resolutions supporting the End of Life Options Act; holding a press conference with prospective legislative candidates pledging to support the bill if elected; and hosting public forums featuring a physician as one of the speakers who supports death with dignity.

Cross-Country Collaboration

We have been begun supporting John with strategic counsel information, email communications, and capacity building activities.

Western Massachusetts Death with Dignity with Peter Korchnak

Western Massachusetts Death with Dignity’s John Berkowitz (right) and Randee Laikind with Peter Korchnak

Organizations like Western Massachusetts Death with Dignity are prime candidates for our Dignity50 State Leadership Incubator. Through this program, we provide technical assistance and training to leaders of state-based organizations to help them become effective advocates for assisted dying.

Our recent victory in Maine, which adopted an assisted-dying law in June 2019, was made possible by the efforts of grassroots advocates led by Valerie Lovelace, a graduate of the State Leadership Incubator.

We look forward to partnering with John on growing the movement for aid in dying in the Bay State.

2 Comments.

Linette E Powell
June 27, 2019 at 5:48 am

Thank you for your advocacy on this legislation in Massachusetts. I believe that every individual should have the full right to pre determine their own course of action for their own process of dying. None of us can know how our final days will be affected by the myriad health issues of old age or disease. We should have the right to not only put our wishes into legal format in health proxies, letters of personal intent and explanation and with our communications with our medical doctors. I myself would like to make sure that I have a primary care doctor going into my later years, that would listen to and understand and empathize with any end of life issues and decisions I choose to make. There is no reason any human being should be made to go thru months, or even years of painful suffering leading to the inevitable conclusion of dying. Dying is part of life, society and individuals should be able to plan for it with dignity and acceptance and with the opportunity to say goodbye to those they love in their own chosen manner, in the privacy of their environment of choosing, with the compassionate evaluation and aid of their physician thru comfortable, painless medical means.

Debra sorber
June 27, 2019 at 10:39 am

We need Pennsylvania to help get death with Dignity on to the legislators and vote for a positive outcome!

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Afterword: Physician-Assisted Dying Concepts

Growing Grassroots Partnerships in Massachusetts

In 2012, Death with Dignity National Center led the campaign for a ballot measure to pass an assisted-dying law in Massachusetts. While polls showed 58 percent of Massachusetts residents supported the ballot question about this end-of-life option, the measure lost narrowly 51 to 49 percent. In the ensuing years, support for death with dignity has grown in the state and across the nation, as evidenced by the adoption of aid-in-dying laws in six states and Washington, D.C. since 2013.

Massachusetts lawmakers are considering death with dignity legislation in 2019; a hearing is scheduled for June 25. Death with Dignity staff will be joined by our grassroots partner John Berkowitz of Western Massachusetts Death with Dignity. Here , he shares the story of his journey from concerned citizen to advocate and how he is working with lawmakers to pass aid-in-dying legislation in the Bay State.