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Physician-assisted suicide opponents prepare for testimony on Beacon Hill


Legislators will hear testimony Oct. 1 on bills once again attempting to legalize physician-assisted suicide in Massachusetts. Unsplash photo/Sharon McCutcheon

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BRAINTREE -- The Massachusetts Catholic Conference and its allies are preparing to oppose the latest attempt to legalize physician-assisted suicide in the Commonwealth.

The Massachusetts legislature is considering two bills, House 2381 and Senate 1384, titled "An Act relative to end of life options." If passed, they would allow doctors to prescribe a mixture of lethal drugs to individuals diagnosed as having less than six months to live.

A hearing before the Joint Committee on Public Health is to take place on Oct. 1. The committee will then have until the end of the legislative session on July 31, 2022, to decide whether to act on the bill.

Jim Driscoll, the executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference (MCC), explained that the two bills are identical in their text, unlike in previous legislative sessions.

"Other years they had some differences to them, with the same end goal to pass physician-assisted suicide. But this year they happen to be identical, and I think that's just a way to make it easier for the committee to vote the bills out of committee in a favorable manner, because then there'd be no conflicting provisions to work out," Driscoll said Sept. 24.

The MCC is sending parishes a handout to include in bulletins, providing parishioners with information about the bills and encouraging them to contact their legislators and voice their opposition to physician-assisted suicide (PAS). Among the concerns listed are the fact that terminal diagnoses can be incorrect, with patients living longer than expected, and the possibility that vulnerable individuals may be unduly influenced to end their lives.

Marianne Luthin, director of the Archdiocese of Boston's Pro-Life Office, said she would encourage every Catholic to take the MCC's message to heart.

"We know from our sad experience with abortion that if PAS is legalized, it will become more accepted. And those who will suffer the most are the vulnerable members of society, especially the disabled and those who are underserved with good mental health and palliative care services," Luthin said in an email to The Pilot.

One person preparing to speak at the Oct. 1 hearing is Tahni Morell, a staff member at the Collaborative Parishes of Resurrection and St. Paul in Hingham. She was involved with the 2012 campaign against the ballot question on PAS, and will again draw on her own experience to fight its legalization.

Her husband, Paul Morell, was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2002, just days after the birth of their second child. Doctors predicted that he had just months to live, and said that most patients would not live past two years.

But Paul Morell exceeded everyone's expectations: he lived another eight years, and the couple even had another child, something they had not thought possible due to his chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

As his health deteriorated in the final months and weeks of his life, he made videos and wrote letters to his wife and each of their children. Tahni Morell said that they were told at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute that many terminally ill patients say they will leave such messages for their loved ones, but they do not because it is too difficult.

"It takes a lot of courage to do that, and only because he was facing kind of the end there did he muster that up," Tahni Morell said.

She said that as her husband lost his physical strength, he also became more vulnerable emotionally.

"You're facing the reality of what's before you, and therefore you are more open to engaging in certain dialogues," she said.

This allowed them to have "intimate" and "healing" conversations about love, forgiveness, and unfulfilled dreams.

"In turn, as I saw him weaken, it helped me to be able to let him go," Tahni Morell said.

Paul Morell died in 2009 at the age of 53, when his children were three, seven, and 10 years old.

"In the aftermath of his passing, the grief was more healthy because of the natural passage of his life that gave rise to all of these vulnerable conversations that would not have happened otherwise," Tahni Morell said.

In 2012, on the anniversary of Paul Morell's death, the committee opposing the "Death with Dignity" Initiative on the ballot approached Tahni Morell to ask for her participation in their advertising campaign. She was featured in a 30-second commercial as well as a Fox News story.

Her daughter Julia, who was then 13, also offered her opinion, saying, "After all these years of trying to keep Dad alive, if he took that suicide pill, it would have felt like a betrayal."

Last Father's Day, the family watched one of the videos Paul Morell left behind. It was addressed to Matthew, the son born after the diagnosis, who was three when his father died and barely remembers him, but now has the lasting gift of his messages.

"There's no way that would have happened if Paul would have taken advantage of what they're trying to make legal and done it earlier when he was stronger and not in that vulnerable state. It just would have cut it all short, and we would not have what we have today," Tahni Morell said.

She sees several problems with H2381 and S1384. One is the very small number of mental health consultations required -- not enough for a counselor to adequately assess a patient, as Morell said she knows from experience. Another is that family notification is not a requirement, but merely a recommendation.

"I cannot fathom, as a family member, not knowing this and finding out later. The grief as a result of that would be so much more intense and complicated," Morell said.

She said she sees "a profound purposefulness in the end stages, but unless you've been through it, it's hard to really appreciate."

She also questions the phrase "death with dignity." Remembering her husband's natural death, "which was pain-free, and us cherishing every last moment of his life, right by his side -- to me, that's death with dignity," she said.

Contact information for Massachusetts legislators and the Joint Committee on Public Health can be found at the Massachusetts Catholic Conference website, MACatholic.org.

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