The controversial ballot referendum on physician-assisted suicide has prompted a flurry of late-breaking, heart-wrenching TV ads and fierce opposition from a broad coalition of religious, conservative, and antiabortion activists across the country who have dramatically outraised proponents.
Opponents, fearing that passage in Massachusetts would advance the movement nationally, have poured nearly $2.6 million into efforts to defeat it, with contributions coming from Catholic dioceses as far away as Minnesota, Kansas, and even the US Virgin Islands. And Catholic colleges have taken the extraordinary step of reaching out to their tens of thousands of alumni to warn them against the ballot question.
“Everyone who is involved in this believes that if it passes in Massachusetts, it’s a gateway to the rest of the country,’’ said Terrence C. Donilon, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.
But proponents, including doctors like Marcia Angell, a Harvard Medical School senior lecturer and former editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, said it is a matter of patient choice. “I don’t see that anybody has the right to deny a desperately suffering patient that option if he or she wants to take it,’’ she said.
Modeled on the law in place in Oregon for 15 years, the “death with dignity’’ measure would allow doctors to prescribe pills for patients with up to six months to live to end their lives. If approved, the referendum would make Massachusetts the third state where voters embraced physician- assisted dying.
Ads describing the measure have flooded the airwaves in recent weeks, confronting voters with an emotional decision they will be asked to make on Election Day.
In one ad, a pharmacist dumps out the 100 red pills the patient would consume alone, without a doctor present, to end his life. In another less- circulated spot that favors the ballot question, the mother and husband of a cancer patient describe suffering that could have been alleviated through assisted suicide.
As with so many issues this election season, the complicated question has also created a new front in the ongoing battle between the extreme left and the far right, with figureheads of both camps leading the fight in the final days.
US Representative Barney Frank, the outspoken gay liberal congressman long demonized by conservatives, pointed to some of those who have enlisted in the opposition, to paint the movement as extremist.
“Question Two is a personal choice, and we deserve to have a fair and meaningful dialogue, not a smear campaign loaded with scare tactics and funded by radical antigay, antichoice hate groups,’’ Frank wrote in a fund-raising letter for the ballot question last month.
But another well-known Massachusetts Democrat, Vicki Kennedy, the widow of the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, has aligned herself with the opposition, citing her husband’s experience with cancer. Given only two to four months to live, the senator instead survived 15 months, she wrote in an opinion piece in the Cape Cod Times.
The ballot question’s leading opposition group, The Committee Against Physician Assisted Suicide, got one of its largest contributions from the American Family Association, a controversial Mississippi-based conservative organization that opposes gay marriage (the committee returned the $250,000 contribution two months later).
Another $175,000 came from the right-wing American Principles Project, which opposes comprehensive sex education and antibullying programs.
And another $25,000 came from Foster Friess, a conservative who fueled the super PAC backing former presidential candidate Rick Santorum and who drew attention for saying that contraception was cheaper back when women used aspirin.
“The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly,’’ he said.
Steve Crawford, a spokesman for the group that is pushing for the ballot question, said of the opposition: “These organizations, they have always been against individual choice.’’
Also working against the ballot question is a committee called Massachusetts Against Doctor Prescribed Suicide, which has raised $331,583. Second Thoughts, a group concerned with the measure’s impact on the disabled, has raised $31,550.
Comparatively, the groups proposing physician-assisted dying in Massachusetts have collected far less, about $700,000.
Dignity 2012, the Frank-backed coalition, has raised $419,979.
A second group, called MA Compassion & Choices Campaign Dignity 2012, has raised $279,266.
Funding for both sides is still pouring in.
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston recently contributed $250,000 to the opposition, said Donilon. Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley felt that it was imperative, even though money is extremely tight, Donilon added.
“He feels this is one of the most serious social and moral issues facing the Commonwealth, and he asked dioceses around the country to contribute; they have,’’ Donilon said.
The Catholic Church teaches that human life is sacred from conception to natural death and that suicide in any form is a grave sin.
The efforts by Catholic colleges to reach out to alumni followed months of discussion, two of the schools’ leaders said.
Ultimately, tens of thousands of alumni received a letter signed by the presidents of six Catholic colleges and two nursing schools warning that doctor-assisted suicide would “cast aside moral and ethical principles.’’
Sister Janet Eisner, president of Emmanuel College since 1979, said she could not remember another similar outreach to alumni on a ballot question.
Much of the medical community has also lined up against the measure, with the Massachusetts Medical Society, and some individual doctors speaking out against it.
Guy Maytal, a psychiatrist who works at Massachusetts General Hospital, said he finds the language flawed.
He noted that many patients facing a fatal prognosis become temporarily depressed and hopeless and that the prognoses given by doctors are not always accurate.
But some doctors, like Angell, the Harvard lecturer, see it differently. Angell’s father shot himself rather than continue to suffer from prostate cancer. “He didn’t have to die that night,’’ Angell said. “. . . When people tell me, you can commit suicide if you want to, I think, ‘What a thing to say.’ ’’