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Drive begins to put assisted suicide law on ballot next year

List of divisive issues for 2012 has been growing

By Kyle Cheney
State House News Service / August 4, 2011

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Voters may be asked to determine the fate of a proposal permitting dying patients to take life-ending drugs, a wrenching issue that backers say is a matter of dignity for the terminally ill but that opponents have warned is fraught with the potential for error.

Backers of assisted suicide for certain terminally ill patients filed paperwork yesterday with Attorney General Martha Coakley to begin the process of bringing their plan, dubbed the Death With Dignity Act, to the 2012 ballot.

The proposed law asks voters to recognize that it is in the public interest to permit patients “with a terminal disease that will cause death within six months’’ to obtain drugs to “end his or her life in a humane and dignified manner.’’ The plan also requires the patient to be capable of making medical decisions and to consult with physicians.

“It is further declared that the public welfare requires that such a process be entirely voluntary on the part of all participants, including the patient, his or her physicians, and any other health care provider or facility providing services or care to the patient,’’ according to the text of the proposal.

Only two states, Washington and Oregon, have legalized assisted suicide.

To reach the ballot, backers must have the language of their plan certified by Coakley, who has until early September to make a determination. Then, proponents must gather 68,911 signatures by mid-November. If the signature drive succeeds, lawmakers have until May 2012 to back the proposal, offer an alternative, or permit the plan to go to the ballot unaltered.

Barring legislative intervention, backers would need to collect an additional 11,485 signatures before sending the plan to voters in November 2012.

The proposal adds another divisive issue to a growing list of potential 2012 ballot questions that already includes the legalization and regulation of medical marijuana, the repeal of the state’s individual mandate to obtain health insurance, a requirement that school personnel decisions prioritize teacher evaluation results, and a bill requiring auto manufacturers to sell repair information to independent mechanics.

Representative Louis Kafka, Democrat of Stoughton, filed a bill earlier this year that resembles the assisted suicide ballot proposal, and he said a ballot push could draw attention to the issue.

“As I’m finding out, more people in the general public are interested in the issue because of personal - either having family members that have gone through serious and painful deaths, illnesses and then death, and would have, in their opinion, benefited from such a law,’’ Kafka said in a phone interview, adding that he learned of the proposal yesterday and is not one of the ballot drive organizers. “Perhaps educating the public and then pursuing a law from the standpoint of a ballot question may be a better vehicle than legislation.’’

“Usually an issue like this could take two or three or four sessions before, as I like to put it, the time has come for passage,’’ Kafka continued. “I think we could work together to the issue’s advantage, giving people the ability to die with dignity.’’

Kafka’s bill has been cosponsored by six colleagues.