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MCC testifies against assisted suicide at statehouse

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BOSTON -- The Massachusetts Catholic Conference opposed physician-assisted suicide at a packed Committee on the Judiciary hearing at the statehouse March 6 on "An Act Relative to Death With Dignity."

The MCC, the public policy arm of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts, submitted written and oral testimony that day, outlining the Church's continued opposition to the bill and the ballot initiative.

"The Church teaches us that life itself is a gift from God. Life is to be cherished, nurtured, protected, and finally, cared for with the help of others until the time of natural death -- not self-administered death, not assisted death," MCC executive director James Driscoll testified at the hearing.

He went on to advocate for hospice and palliative care as a valid alternative to extended suffering or immediate death as proposed in the bill and the ballot initiative.

"Hospice and Palliative care professionals offer a proven and effective pain management program to patients -- no matter the level of pain. Through this care, patients are comforted in the last months, weeks, and days of their lives," Driscoll said.

According to Statehouse News Service, Rep. Louis Kafka (D-Stoughton), sponsor of the legislation, also spoke at the hearing.

"Everyone must be allowed to make their own choice with their own beliefs," he said.

Opposition to the bill and ballot initiative pointed to the emotional state of a terminally ill patient, whom the MCC and others said might be depressed before making a decision to take their own life.

"Terminally ill, dying patients should not be permitted to make or be encouraged to make a choice that ends all choices. Terminally ill, dying patients do not need the so-called compassion that supports the idea that one is better off dead," Driscoll said.

"When we grow old or sick, we are tempted to lose heart. In those cases we should be surrounded by people who say 'How can I help you?' -- We deserve to grow old in a society that views our cares and needs with compassion -- grounded in respect, offering genuine support, not 'so-called compassion,'" Driscoll said, quoting Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley.

Currently, only Oregon and Washington allow physician-assisted suicide. According to advocates, 65 people in Oregon ended their lives under the law in 2010.

Speaking with The Pilot after the hearing, Peter McNulty, associate director for policy and research at MCC, explained the history of the effort to legalize assisted suicide in Massachusetts and its dangers.

The Joint Committee on the Judiciary now has a both a bill and a ballot initiative before it to legalize physician assisted suicide in Massachusetts.

McNulty said Kafka has filed the house bill repeatedly over the last five years.

"Obviously it never gained any traction, the bill always died in committee. So, the proponents decided that their best route was through initiative petition," McNulty said.

McNulty said the bill, House Bill 2233, may again die in committee, but the ballot initiative, House Bill 3884, will not die because the process for a ballot initiative is different.

With looming elections, the issue of physician-assisted suicide may receive less attention in the commonwealth according to McNulty.

"It is going to be a very noisy election cycle with the presidential election, a very hotly contested Senate seat, and a few congressional seats that are up in the air. They are going to take a lot of the news cycle, a lot of that attention, away from this ballot question," he said.

Moving forward, supporters of the ballot initiative must gain a relatively small number of signatures -- 11,485 -- to get the issue onto the ballot in November.

"It is very important to raise public awareness that this will be on the ballot, and why it is so dangerous," McNulty said.

"I think the most important thing is just to spread the word among everyone's various constituencies," he said.

The Catholic Church has opposed attempts to legalize suicide as far back as 1982.

McNulty said the issue came to the forefront of public debate a decade later.

"I would say 1995 was when it really came. There was a legislative effort to legalize physician assisted suicide. The bishops responded vigorously," McNulty said.

McNulty said the Church will continue to oppose efforts to legalize physician assisted suicide also because doctors can be wrong in their assessment of when a patient will die.

"Doctor's diagnoses are not 100 percent accurate," he said. "People beat those projections all the time."

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