At a Glance:

Compassion & Choices filed a case in Massachusetts state court in 2016 on behalf of Dr. Roger Kligler and Dr. Alan Steinbach (Kligler, et al. v. Healey, et al.), seeking a judicial declaration clarifying that medical aid in dying is not criminal in Massachusetts because there is no criminal statute barring the practice. Additionally, if it is prohibited under common law, the prosecution of any physician providing medical aid in dying should be found unconstitutional. Dr. Kligler is a Massachusetts physician who is battling stage 4 cancer. Such a declaration would allow Dr. Kligler and other terminally ill patients to end their suffering on their terms. In the initial ruling, Compassion & Choices prevailed on its free speech claim that asserted the physicians can provide information about medical aid in dying to their patients, but lost on the other five counts. After appealing the case and fully briefing the court the matter was sent directly to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. Oral arguments will be in March 2022.

The Details:

Dr. Roger Kligler smiles from his hospital bed

Roger Kligler, a retired physician in Falmouth, Massachusetts, has lived with prostate cancer for two decades. As a physician himself, Roger has dealt firsthand with cancer his entire professional life. Although his current cancer treatments have been working, he knows exactly how devastating its various symptoms and treatments can be. Roger believes that he “should have the freedom to say how much suffering is too much during [his] final days,” so he decided to pursue just that.

On October 24, 2016, Roger Kligler and Alan Steinbach, M.D., a physician who would be willing to write prescriptions for medical aid in dying but fears prosecution (“Plaintiffs”), filed a Complaint with the Superior Court of Suffolk County, Massachusetts, seeking a judicial declaration that medical aid in dying is not criminal in Massachusetts, and if it is prohibited under common law, the prosecution of any physician providing medical aid in dying should be found unconstitutional.

On November 6, 2018, we filed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, arguing that plaintiffs have standing to bring the lawsuit, terminal patients seeking access to medical aid in dying should not be treated differently from terminal patients who receive terminal sedation from their physicians, there is no threat of harm to third parties if medical aid in dying were allowed, and that Massachusetts’ free speech laws protect the right to discuss medical aid in dying.

On March 26, 2019, the court heard oral arguments. On December 31, 2019, the court dismissed the case. Compassion & Choices will appeal the court’s dismissal of all but one count in a lawsuit asserting the state constitution and existing state law allow medical aid in dying for mentally capable, terminally ill adults. 

The court did rule in our favor in one of the six counts in the lawsuit: physicians are free to advise terminally ill patients about this end-of-life care option to peacefully end unbearable suffering in the 10 jurisdictions where it’s authorized: California, Colorado, Hawai‘i, Maine, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington, and Washington, D.C.

In affirming the plaintiff’s right to counsel terminally ill patients about the full range of end-of-life care options, Suffolk County Superior Court Judge Mary K. Ames concluded: 

“…the plaintiffs are correct that the law of involuntary manslaughter does not prohibit such provision of information and advice … where MAID [medical aid in dying] is legal … In concluding that MAID is not authorized under Massachusetts law, the court notes that there appears to be a broad consensus that this issue is best not addressed by the judiciary” (see pages 11, 23 of ruling posted here). For more information about the ruling, please see the press release here.

Roger Kligler’s Op-Ed, “The Death I Want,” published in Boston Magazine, explains Kligler’s desire for medical aid in dying.

Compassion & Choices appealed the court’s dismissal on all other counts in May 2021. As we await a decision on the appeal, Compassion & Choices continues to work to ensure all individuals have access to the care they want at the end of life.

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