Advocates for Assisted Dying Deflated by Massachusetts Defeat

PHOTO: Jim Carberry, who lost his wife, Margie, to cancer, was an advocate for assisted dying in Massachusetts.

More than 1.5 million Massachusetts voters said "no" to a ballot measure last week that would have allowed doctor-assisted suicide for the terminally ill, clinching a 51 percent majority. Jim Carberry might have been one of them, had he not watched his cancer-stricken wife starve herself to death.

Margie Carberry had four surgeries and 44 doses of radiation for a rare spinal tumor before doctors said "there was nothing more they could do."

"By that point, she was just existing," said Jim Carberry of Natick, Mass., recalling the 16-year cancer battle that left his wife unable to walk, talk, eat and even breathe on her own. "She started seeing the palliative care team at Mass General, as well as a social worker and her minister. And she told them all on numerous occasions that after our youngest daughter's graduation, she wanted to die."

Margie made it to the graduation ceremony, a milestone she imagined when at the time of her diagnosis when her daughters were 2 and 5 years old. A week later, she decided to die by removing her feeding tube.

"She exercised the only option she had," said Carberry of the agonizing process that spanned five weeks in the summer of 2011. "It was horrendous watching her waste away, having my children watch her waste away. I decided that if there was anything I could do to help another family avoid this, I would do it."

Carberry became a voice for Death With Dignity, a national campaign to let doctors prescribe life-ending medication to terminally ill patients. Assisted dying laws have already been passed in Oregon and Washington. And on Nov. 6, the issue was on the Massachusetts ballot as "Question 2." The measure was met with fierce opposition by religious, medical and disability rights groups.

"I honestly thought we would win," said Carberry, who was devastated by the narrow defeat. "The fact that we lost by such a close margin, and the fact that the other side was funded by some outside groups who really didn't have a dog in this fight, I won't lie, I'm really angry."

One of the groups, the Committee Against Assisted Suicide, argued Question 2 was "poorly written, confusing and flawed," opening the door for depressed patients to take their lives before getting mental health counseling or seeking hospice care.

''We believe the voters came to see this as a flawed approach to end of life care, lacking in the most basic safeguards,'' committee chairwoman Rosanne Bacon Meade said in a statement to the Associated Press. ''We hope this marks the beginning of a real conversation about ways to improve end-of-life care in Massachusetts, which, as the nation's health care capital, is well positioned to take the lead on this issue."

Assisted dying advocates argue data from Oregon, where the Death With Dignity Act was passed in 1994, refutes concerns about safeguards and plan to push for the ballot measure again in 2014.

"The foundation for support has been built, and we'll keep working to make sure voters in Massachusetts and other states get the facts they need for an open and honest debate about Death with Dignity," Peg Sandeen, executive director of the Death With Dignity National Center, said in a statement.

Carberry admits his position on Question 2 was undoubtedly influenced by his personal experience, which he did his best to share in advance of the vote.

"If someone could watch what my family went through all the way to the end and say, 'That's how I want my loved one to pass away,' then there's nothing I can do," he said. "But anyone who has an iota of compassion in the heart, I can't see them saying that."

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