Question 2 triggers a battle over life, death, and dignity

Early on, it appeared that Massachusetts would become the third state to legalize so-called physician-assisted suicide, with polls showing voters favoring the end-of-life ballot question by a more than 2-to-1 margin. But as the weeks to the election have dwindled down to days and opponents have begun flooding the airwaves with stark ads, it’s become clear that few issues these days trigger as raw an emotional response as Question 2 and few can predict what the outcome will be come Tuesday.

Recent polls by the Globe and Suffolk University show support for the Prescribing Medication to End Life referendum has dwindled rapidly. The Globe has support at 47-37 while Suffolk, which just six weeks ago reported Question 2 was favored 64-27, now pegs it at 47-41, within the poll’s margin of error.

Supporters avoid the term “suicide” and label the measure “Death with Dignity,” pointing out those affected by the decision are already dying and are being offered a choice to relieve their pain and suffering. Under the bill, a doctor would prescribe life-ending medication to someone who has less than six months to live.

But opponents say the decision to end one’s life is often triggered by depression and there’s little dignity involved in the process. An ad by opponents which has been running for about two weeks over Massachusetts’ airwaves shows a man in a white coat, presented as a pharmacist, emptying out a bottle of the barbiturate Seconal and saying a patient is prescribed 100 of these pills and is directed to break them open and empty the powder into a glass of water and drink it with no doctor or nurse in attendance. “And they call that death with dignity?” he asks.

As the ballot question begins to draw wider attention, others are weighing in with equally powerful accounts. The opposition has cobbled together a powerful coalition of the Massachusetts Medical Society, the Boston Archdiocese, and a number of pro-life groups.  In the New York Times op-ed page today, NPR commentator and author Ben Mattlin, a leading advocate for disabled rights, questions whether passage of the bill would increase pressure from family members on those in the final stages of life.

“I’ve lived so close to death for so long that I know how thin and porous the border between coercion and free choice is, how easy it is for someone to inadvertently influence you to feel devalued and hopeless — to pressure you ever so slightly but decidedly into being ‘reasonable,’ to unburdening others, to ‘letting go,’” writes Mattlin, who was born with a congenital neuromuscular disease and is confined to a wheelchair.

It is the visceral reaction that both sides are tapping to make their case. Supporters include a number of high-profile physicians and medical experts as well as the most heart-wrenching proponents of all – people who watched family members struggle at the end of life with no avenue to help them end their suffering.

Dr. Marcia Angell, a lecturer at the Harvard Medical School and former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, was the force behind the ballot question. Angell says her motivation was watching her father die slowly from prostate cancer before finally taking his life with a gun when there were no other options. She says no one, not even the disabled, can understand what the question is truly about.

“This has nothing to do with disabled people, nothing whatsoever,” Angell told WBUR’s Sacha Pfeiffer, who also interviewed disabled advocate John Kelley, who is a quadriplegic. “This has to do with the terminally ill, which they are not. It’s fine for them to take whatever position they want to. But they have no special standing. This is about terminally ill people who have a life expectancy of six months. It is not, ‘Is your life worth living?’ This is not about what [Kelley] thinks or anybody thinks, except the patient.”

It is a vexing question, one that people on both sides say you cannot appreciate until you walk in their shoes. And that’s what’s going to make the vote so tough on many.

                                                                                            –JACK SULLIVAN

HURRICANE SANDY

The American Red Cross has raised more than $11 million for disaster relief in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, with the biggest donation of $500,000 coming from the New York Yankees. The MassMutual Financial Group has donated $100,000.

Gov. Deval Patrick finds the performance of the state’s electric utilities still needs improvement in responding to power outages.

Matchmaker Sandy: The Washington Post chronicles the budding bromance between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and President Obama. The Christian Science Monitor also peeks in on the two. New Jersey postpones Halloween until November 5, Governing reports.

Sections of the New York City subway reopen. New Yorkers reacquaint themselves with pay phones.

BEACON HILL

Gov. Deval Patrick puts at least a $30 million price tag on the Annie Dookhan scandal, saying the money will cover extra costs for the next few months, the Associated Press reports (via the Telegram & Gazette). Attorney General Martha Coakley is asking Patrick to appoint an independent outside investigator to probe the state drug lab crisis that has thrown thousands of drug convictions into doubt. Here’s the State House News story (via CommonWealth).

A review by the state auditor’s office shows that former Winchester Housing Authority director Joseph Lally, who also maintained a full-time law practice, submitted conflicting time cards that showed him in court and on the job at the housing authority at the same time, the Globe reports.

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Nearly 20 percent of Dartmouth’s representative Town Meeting seats remain unfilled and the most recent Town Meeting had record low attendance, with less than two-thirds of elected members showing up.

The Boston CIty Council finally passed a redistricting plan that a still hospitalized Mayor Tom Menino says he’ll sign.

Danvers Selectman Keith Lucy is facing assault charges for pushing and shoving to see primary election results, the Salem News reports.

NATIONAL POLITICS/WASHINGTON

John Koster, a Republican congressional candidate in Washington, causes a stir in the way he explains why he is opposed to abortion in cases of rape or incest, Talking Points Memo reports. “On the rape thing, it’s like, how does putting more violence onto a woman’s body and taking the life of an innocent child that’s the consequence of this crime, how does that make it better?” Koster said. “You know what I mean?”

ELECTION 2012

The Globe finds its way to the election season trend story of poll addiction. And speaking of … NBC and the Wall Street Journal have President Obama up by three points in Wisconsin and two in New Hampshire, while Public Policy Polling has the president up in Virginia, and enjoying more comfortable margins in Wisconsin and Ohio. The Journal argues that Obama is depending more on Latino turnout than any presidential candidate has. The New York Times editorial page takes up Romney’s discredited auto bailout claims. Time’s Joe Klein looks at the closing arguments of Romney and Obama.

Keller@Large says Scott Brown’s excuses in canceling the final debate are weak. Greater Boston had an at-home visit with Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren but there was no John Silber-Natalie Jacobson moment. Brown and Warren continue to court the black vote in Boston.

The Gloucester Times, in an editorial, says the race between US Rep. John Tierney and Republican Richard Tisei showcases the need for campaign finance reform in the wake of the Citizens United decision. Tisei says being a Republican in Washington would help him be a voice for the GE plant in Lynn, the Item reports.

Joseph Kennedy III meets with GateHouse Media editorial boards and reporters and Sean Bielat also takes questions from the outlet’s journalists.

For state Senate, the Lowell Sun, which tends to lean right, nevertheless backs Democrats Eileen Donoghue, Barry Finegold, Michael Barrett, Kenneth Donnelly, and Jamie Eldridge.

The Telegram & Gazette reports on poll observer maneuverings in Worcester, while the Phoenix provides context behind the story.

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Two developers are selected as finalists for one of the last remaining development parcels on the Rose Kennedy Greenway.

EDUCATION

The Lynn School Committee says a rising student population requires new schools, the Item reports.

The suicide rate for young people on the Cape and Islands is twice the state average: The Cape Cod Times suggests that the region look to Nantucket’s successful suicide awareness programs for ways to prevent deaths.

HEALTH CARE

Ameridose, the Westborough-based sister company of New England Compounding Center agreed to recall all of its drugs after federal regulators raised questions about possible contamination at its labs.

Jay Ruderman, in CommonWealth, says abuse of the disabled cannot be tolerated.

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

US Marines and Navy special forces train for a zombie apocalypse. Seriously.

The Phoenix runs a long essay on climate change by a former Globe staffer Wen Stephenson who has harsh words for the paper’s editorial page.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

Another Halloween tradition continued last night as probation officers from Fall River District Court visited the homes of registered sex offenders to make sure the lights were off and they weren’t handing out candy to trick-or-treaters.

Bringing home the bacon: A judge ruled a Brockton pig owner’s due process rights were violated and ordered the city to return Porkchop, his pet pig, which had been taken into custody and was being prepared for exile after several escapes from the owner’s home.

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

MEDIA

The Nieman Journalism Lab offers an interesting analysis of Nate Silver, polls, statistics, and journalism, all in one.