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BOSTON -- A Massachusetts superior court has ruled that the Commonwealth's laws and constitution do not guarantee a right to physician-assisted suicide, though physicians may provide advice and information about it to their patients.
The decision came in a lawsuit brought by Dr. Roger Kligler, a retired Cape Cod physician who has stage four metastatic prostate cancer, and Dr. Alan Steinbach, who owns a family practice in Falmouth. Steinbach is not Kligler's physician, but both of them have experience treating terminally ill patients.
Steinbach wishes to provide his patients with information and prescriptions for lethal medication if requested, and does not do so now for fear of criminal prosecution. Kligler's physician estimates that there is a 50 percent chance Kligler will die within five years, and he would like to have access to lethal medication in order to have the option of ending his life.
"As a physician who has treated numerous terminally ill adults, I know many of them would want medical aid in dying as an option to peacefully end their suffering. I do not know if I would use this option, but I want it for myself if my suffering becomes intolerable at the end of my life," Kligler said in a Jan. 13 statement released by Compassion and Choices, an organization that supports physician-assisted suicide.
In 2016, Compassion and Choices, O'Melveny and Myers LLP, and the Boston-based law firm Morgan Lewis filed a civil action on behalf of the two doctors. The plaintiffs asserted that providing medical aid in dying (MAID) should not be considered manslaughter and that prohibiting physicians from advising their patients on the practice is an infringement on freedom of speech.
In the ruling, which is dated Dec. 31, 2019, Superior Court Justice Mary Ames said that the court "has immense compassion for Dr. Kligler's desire to avoid a potentially painful death and for Dr. Steinbach's desire to ease his patients' suffering."
It concluded, however, that "the plaintiffs' arguments concerning the right to utilize MAID are unavailing."
Ames said the question of when assisted suicide is permissible should be resolved by the legislature rather than the courts.
"MAID raises difficult moral, societal, and governmental questions, the resolution of which require the type of robust public debate the courts are ill-suited to accommodate," she said in the ruling.
She acknowledged that both parties had "equally strong arguments" for legalization and prohibition of MAID.
"The legislature, not the court, is ideally positioned to weigh these arguments and determine whether and if so, under what restrictions, MAID should be legally authorized," Ames said in the ruling.
The court did, however, rule that physicians may provide information and advise their patients on receiving medical aid in dying in those jurisdictions where it has been legalized. Physician-assisted suicide is currently permitted in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia.
Tom Shakely, Chief Engagement Officer of Americans United for Life, called the ruling "a victory for common sense."
"Every person, and especially the most vulnerable, deserves to be told the truth -- that there is no healing or curative reason for medical suicide, and that there is always hope so long as there is life. Those who are provided medical and emotional support rarely choose suicide, and many attempted suicides through MAID can 'fail' and leave one in genuine suffering. We owe those most vulnerable to suicide much more than what Massachusetts would have us believe," Shakely said in a Jan. 13 statement.
Compassion and Choices released a statement on Jan. 13, announcing that they plan to appeal the decision.
"This setback is disheartening, but we will continue this legal battle," Kligler said in the statement.