In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of states considering death with dignity laws. Sometimes called “assisted suicide” or “right to die” initiatives, these laws make it possible for terminally ill patients to use prescribed medication to end their lives peacefully rather than suffering a painful and protracted death.
The catalyst for greater national attention to this issue was 29-year-old Brittany Maynard, a woman diagnosed with terminal brain cancer who moved from California to Oregon to end her life in 2014. Oregon because California had not yet passed its aid-in-dying law, and Oregon is one of just a few states that allowed terminally ill patients to legally end their lives.
Massachusetts lawmakers have tried to pass a death with dignity law for years. Now, in the 2021-2022 legislative session, the Massachusetts legislature is again considering a death with dignity bill, called the Massachusetts End of Life Options Act (SD 801 in the state senate and HD 1456 in the house of representatives), that would allow terminally ill patients who meet certain requirements to request life-ending medication.
This article first clarifies some confusing language related to death with dignity laws and then sets out the basics of Massachusetts’s proposed law.
“Death with dignity” is one of the most commonly accepted phrases describing the process by which a terminally ill person ingests prescribed medication to hasten death. Many people still think of this process as “assisted suicide” or “physician assisted suicide.” However, proponents of death with dignity argue that the term “suicide” doesn’t apply to terminally ill people who would prefer to live but, facing certain death within months, choose a more gentle way of dying. In fact, Massachusetts’s proposed law states that terminating one’s life under the law is not suicide. (See SD 801, Section 14 and HD 1456, Section 14.)
Increasingly, health organizations are turning away from the term “suicide” to describe a terminally ill patient’s choice to reduce the suffering of an inevitable death. The phrase “aid in dying” is becoming a more accepted way to refer to this process. Massachusetts’s proposed Compassionate Care for the Terminally Ill Act uses the phrase “aid in dying” throughout the text of the bill.
You may also see the phrase “right to die” used in place of “death with dignity.” However, “right to die” is more accurately used in the context of directing one’s own medical care—that is, refusing life-sustaining treatment such as a respirator or feeding tubes when permanently unconscious or close to death. You can provide your own health care directions by completing a Massachusetts health care proxy and living will. (See the end of this article for more information.)
Massachusetts’s proposed law is modeled closely on Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act, which took effect in 1997. If Massachusetts’s law passes, a patient requesting aid-in-dying medication will have to be:
A patient who meets the requirements above will be prescribed aid-in-dying medication only if:
To use the medication, the patient must be able to ingest it on their own. A doctor or other person who administers the lethal medication may face criminal charges.
You can read the full text of the Massachusetts End of Life Options Act on the Massachusetts legislature’s website.
For more news and information about death with dignity in Massachusetts, visit Compassion and Choices Massachusetts.
To find out more about the history and current status of death with dignity laws in the United States, visit the website of the Death With Dignity National Center.
For information about appointing a health care agent and making known your own wishes for medical care at the end of life, see the Living Wills & Medical Powers of Attorney section of Nolo.com.
Updated February 11, 2021