Massachusetts Ballot Questions: Voters to Decide Issue of Assisted Suicide

In the wake of the national brouhaha spurred by Dr. Jack Kevorkian in the 1990s, doctor-assisted suicide is not the hot-button issue it once was, with Oregon, Washington state and Montana legalizing the practice in recent years.

But Massachusetts has reignited the debate, and voters in the Bay State could vote to legalize the practice on November 6. Early statewide polls showed the “death with dignity” ballot question enjoying wide support among voters, with more than 60% of respondents expressing support for the initiative.

But the race has narrowed as Election Day approaches and the measure, which is modeled on an Oregon law that was backed by voters in 1994 and again in 1997, is now garnering about as much support as it is opposition.

Opponents have attacked the measure for allowing end-of-life patients to go it alone after receiving life-ending prescriptions and not requiring patients wishing to commit suicide to seek mental health treatment before doing so.

Backers of the idea, including the state attorney general and retiring U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, say the measure will allow patients to make decisions about the kind of care they want and how — if at all — they choose to live.

Health care in Massachusetts has come under a national microscope during the presidential campaign as stakeholders on both sides of aisle attempt to link the state’s health care law to the much-derided Affordable Care Act. But the issue of assisted suicide has largely stayed out of national politics, with the presidential candidates not addressing the issue and the two candidates in the state’s marquee Senate race treading lightly.

But should Bay Staters vote to back doctor-assisted suicide, Massachusetts may, once again, become — as it did in adopting the Mitt Romney-backed plan to achieve near universal health coverage — a “model for the nation.”