Last month, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts heard arguments in a case that could decide whether doctors are able to prescribe lethal medicines to terminally ill patients who wish to hasten their own deaths. At odds is whether doctors should be charged with manslaughter for giving life-ending drugs to certain patients.
The justices seemed to agree that the state Legislature should play a role in any legalization of medical aid in dying. Where they appeared to differ was over what that role should be. The decision could be left entirely to the Legislature, which has rejected a number of such bills in the past. Or the high court could declare that terminal patients have a constitutional right to this assistance — and the Legislature would be left to sort out the details of how that would be regulated.
The case was brought by Dr. Roger Kligler, a retired 70-year-old Falmouth physician who has advanced prostate cancer. He told GBH News that he watched his mother die a “horrible death” as a result of pancreatic cancer, followed a year later by the death of his father-in-law from an abdominal sarcoma. “And I decided at that point in time I would not die that way,” Kligler told GBH News this week. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer 20 years ago, and said the spreading cancer has caused “a lot of pain and suffering.”
In his own medical career as an internist, Kligler said, he treated patients who faced painful and terminal illnesses, and he couldn’t legally prescribe drugs that would allow them to end their own lives. “And I just realized that people need to have a choice at the end of life so that they are able to have less in the way of pain, if they want that choice,” Kligler said. “It just has to be an option for them — not to force anyone or tell anyone what to do. But just have it as a choice.”
In March 2021, two bills were introduced in Massachusetts parliament: H. 2381 and S.1384. This latest bill is sponsored by 84 members of the Massachusetts Legislature, with 67 House members and 17 senators.
In October, a hearing was held virtually by the Legislature’s Committee on Public Health.
According to SJC rules, the Justices will seek to issue their opinion on this case within the next 130 days.