Should physician-assisted suicide be legal? Massachusetts voters will get to weigh in Nov. 6 on a ballot question that would make Massachusetts the third state to legalize physician-assisted suicide for people with terminal illnesses.
Oregon and Washington are currently the only states that allow it.
The measure would allow patients whose doctors say they have six months or less to live to obtain lethal doses of medication.
Thirty-four states prohibit assisted suicide outright, while Massachusetts and six others ban it through common law.
A September Suffolk University/7 NEWS poll found 64 percent of likely Massachusetts voters support the initiative.
The initiative stems from a ballot petition filed by Boston-based Dignity 2012 and a terminally ill Stoughton, Mass. man's 2009 attempt to get a similar bill passed in the state legislature. Lawmakers didn't take action, and Al Lipkind died of stomach cancer that year, according to CBS Boston.
Supporters, primarily patients' rights groups, say the bill has effective safeguards, including prohibiting doctors from prescribing the drugs to depressed patients.
Dr. Marcia Angell, a medical ethicist at Harvard Medical School and former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, supports the bill. Her father shot himself to death in 1988 as he was battling painful metastatic prostate cancer.
"If it was something that was legal and accepted, I think he would have lived longer and I think it would have been much easier for the family," Angell told NPR
Religious, medical and disability rights groups are fighting the measure, saying it's open to manipulation and relies on diagnoses that may be wrong. They've raised more than $1.6 million so far, compared with nearly $500,000 for supporters, mostly patients' rights and AIDS groups, according to CBS Boston.
John Kelly, the leader of Second Thoughts, an organization of people with disabilities who oppose legalizing assisted suicide, told WBUR that one of the reasons he's against the bill is it might signal the lives of people with illnesses or disabilities are not worthwhile.
"If you go see a doctor and that doctor starts talking about assisted suicide, that might feel like a radical betrayal," Kelly added. "I know it would for me."
The Massachusetts Medical Society, which also owns and publishes the New England Journal, opposes the ban.
Dr. Richard Aghababian, president of the society, said in a statement he opposes the bill "based on the idea that physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician's role as healer." He adds it is difficult to predict a person's end of life within six months.
ProCon.org has more on both sides of the physician-assisted suicide debate.