Massachusetts, California Voters to Decide on Death

Bay State voters will decide whether to allow physician-assisted suicide, while people in the Golden State will vote on abolishing the death penalty.
by | November 5, 2012

Nov. 7, 2012 7:54 a.m. Update: With more than 94 percent of precincts reporting, 52.6 percent of Californians voted against repealing the death penalty. Meanwhile in Massachusetts, 51 percent of voters rejected physician-assisted suicide with 93 percent of precincts reporting.

For full election coverage and analysis, go to Governing's 2012 Election Center.

Death will be on the minds of voters in Massachusetts and California this Election Day, as residents in the former will be asked whether to allow terminally ill adults to decide to end their lives, and those in the latter will decide whether to abolish the death penalty.

As Governing detailed in its October issue, the growing segment of aging baby boomers have made their stance on end-of-life care known: they want to have a choice. The Massachusetts ballot initiative aims to give it to them.

Here are the specifics of the “Death with Dignity” initiative: a terminally ill patient (defined as someone with six months or less to live) who is mentally capable can request a dosage of lethal drugs from their doctor. The patient would be required to submit the request twice within 15 days. A second doctor would be required to affirm the patient’s terminal status and their mental capability to make their own decisions about their health.

The question has been opposed by a number of groups, including disability rights groups, who argue that the definitions of “terminally ill” are too loose and worry that beneficiaries of a patient’s death could abuse the provision. The Massachusetts Medical Association officially opposes the initiative, saying it lacks sufficient safeguards to stop abuse. One group filed a lawsuit challenging the initiative’s wording to block its path to the ballot, but it was denied by the state supreme judicial court in June.

Only Oregon, Montana and Washington have legalized physician-assisted suicide. At least 30 states have passed laws explicitly banning it.

According to the latest polling, the “Death with Dignity” initiative appears poised to pass and add Massachusetts as the fourth state to allow it. Two polls taken in October -- one by the University of Massachusetts and the other by Public Policy Polling -- found 63 percent and 56 percent support for the initiative, respectively.

In a sense, Californians will be confronting a fundamentally different question about state-prescribed death.

The state’s Proposition 34 would: repeal the death penalty as the maximum penalty for murder, replaced with life without the possibility of parole. That statute would be applied to anyone already sentenced to death and awaiting execution. Those convicted of murder would be required to work during their imprisonment, and their wages would be paid as restitution to their victims’ families. The initiative also creates a $100 million fund to assist state and local law enforcement in solving homicide cases.

California would join 16 other states in abolishing the death penalty. The state supreme court actually outlawed the practice in the 1970’s, but a voter initiative reinstated it in 1978.

The question’s supporters have at times used a financial argument: one study found that implementing the death penalty cost California $184 million more per year than implementing life without the possibility of parole. An official state estimate placed the savings for the state and counties at $100 million in the first year, growing to $130 million annually.

However, polling suggests the proposition could have trouble passing. Two October polls  -- one by Survey USA, the other by California Business Table -- found opposition to the initiative at 48 percent, much higher than support, although the number of undecided voters could be enough to turn the electorate in its favor.


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