By Dan Ring
August 20, 2012
Myra P. Berzoff said she doesn’t know if she would take life-ending medications, but said she would like the choice.
Berzoff, a Northampton resident for about 12 years, has been receiving home-based hospice services through Cooley Dickinson Hospital. At 91, she needs oxygen virtually 100 percent of the time, or else she would suffocate. She said she was diagnosed with emphysema three years ago and lives with the fear she could die from breathlessness.
Berzoff said she is a strong supporter of a ballot question on Nov. 6 that if approved by voters would allow adults to self-administer lethal drugs after requesting a prescription. The proposed Death with Dignity Act is modeled after similar laws in Oregon and Washington, also passed by voters. To be eligible, people would need to be diagnosed with a terminal illness and given six months or less to live by a primary doctor with verification by a consulting doctor.
Berzoff, who ran programs and performed other duties at the Helen Keller Services for the Blind in New York for about 20 years, said she wants to live long enough to vote for the ballot question. “I think everybody has a right in making that decision if they are of sound mind,” she said. “I don’t see any point in forcing people to live on and on. I don’t see a reason.”
Opponents call the ballot initiative “physician-assisted suicide.” Critics say that hospice and palliative care are better choices. A new group, called the Committee Against Physician Assisted Suicide, has started a web site at www.stopassistedsuicide.org.
Berzoff said she is losing weight, requires oxygen around the clock and must use a walker to get from room to room in her home.
“I don’t know how much palliative care will do for me in the final analysis,’’ she says. “I don’t know how sick I will get in the final analysis.”
She said she used to smoke about a half pack of cigarettes a day, but quit decades ago when her grand-daughter, Sarah, then 4, told her she didn’t want her to die from smoking. She doesn’t know if smoking caused her emphysema.
Berzoff , who has Medicare, received hospice because she said her doctor has twice certified she had less than six months to live. But she said she has refused to die and that she doesn’t consider herself terminally ill as long as she has oxygen.
She said she has reached no conclusions about whether she would self-administer drugs to instantly take her life.
“I think I should have the right if tomorrow I decide I want to do myself in,” she says bluntly. “I’m using up resources. I feel very strongly about that.”
Basically the same law was enacted in Washington in 2009 and Oregon in 1997. Relatively low numbers of people have used the law, including 114 people who received the lethal medications prescribed by a doctor in Oregon last year and 103 in Washington, according to reports by public health authorities in those states. Roughly a third of those in each state did not use the drugs, however.
Among the opponents of the ballot question in Massachusetts are the four Roman Catholic bishops including Bishop Timothy McDonnell in Springfield.
In the September issue of the Catholic Mirror, due to be released the end of this month, McDonnell writes that the ballot question seeks to authorize physicians “to give death-dealing drugs so that people with serious illness can commit suicide,” according to an excerpt of his column provided by the Diocese of Springfield.
James F. Driscoll, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the public policy arm for the Roman Catholic bishops in Massachusetts, said the church values life from conception to death. He said the church is a big supporter of hospice and palliative care. McDonnell also emphasizes hospice and palliative care in his upcoming column.
Driscoll said the ballot question would set a dangerous precedent. “The church is against this initiative and thinks it is a dangerous path to take a human life before natural death,” Driscoll said.
About 2.6 million Catholics live in Massachusetts, or about 40 to 45 percent of the population, according to Driscoll.
The new coalition, named the Committee Against Physician Assisted Suicide, said it plans to recruit citizens, healthcare leaders, and religious organizations to defeat “this poorly written, confusing, and flawed ballot question,” according to its web site.
Under the ballot question, which qualified with the signatures of about 125,000 registered voters, terminally ill patients would need to make three requests for the medications including two oral and one written, with two different waiting periods between the final request and the prescription.
Stephen Crawford, a spokesman for Dignity 2012, said two former editors of The New England Journal of Medicine and other key doctors were among the original signers of a petition for the law.
The Massachusetts Medical Society, however, opposes the ballot question, keeping in line with the Society’s longstanding policy against physician-assisted suicide, said spokesman Richard P. Gulla.
Dr. John S. Howland, a family physician in Southbridge, said the ballot question is not good for physicians because it would violate the Hippocratic Oath. “It’s very detrimental to the doctor-patient relationship,” he said.
Crawford said the ballot question does not call for suicide in the traditional sense, which involves depression and despair. He also said the initiative should not be labeled “physician-assisted suicide,” which conjures up images of the late Dr. Jack Kevorkian and his “suicide machine” made of scrap parts.
“This is about patients who are suffering,” Crawford said. “This isn’t about the doctors.”
Berzoff, born in New Haven, grew up in a different era.
Her father, a Yale University graduate, contracted tuberculosis, an infectious disease mostly of the lungs. The family moved to western North Carolina , along with thousands of others with the then-incurable disease, seeking fresh air and sunshine.
Born of Jewish parents, she attended for 11 years and graduated from St. Genevieve-of-the-Pines, an all-girls Catholic school, considered one of the state’s best private schools. She obtained her bachelor’s at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and her master’s at The Teachers College at Columbia University.
Her husband, Sydney, a longtime director of development for Brandeis University, would not have agreed, she concedes. He would have taken any treatment to stay alive, she said. He suffered for many months from lymphoma before dying at 49, leaving her a widow for the last 45 years. A daughter, Barbara Shapiro, 49, died of breast cancer after a prolonged period.
Another daughter, Joan Berzoff, is a professor at the School of Social Work at Smith College in Northampton, and a third daughter, Emily Enteress, is businesswoman.
Taught by nuns at Catholic school, Myra Berzoff scoffs at the argument that the ballot question is dangerous because it advocates taking a human life before natural death. She said she should have the option offered by the ballot question.
“That’s absurd,” she said. “If you’re suffering, it’s your life. It isn’t the life of the Catholic church. It’s mine.”