Massachusetts doctor explains why he sued the state seeking right to die

A Massachusetts physician writes about his legal battle seeking the right for aid-in-dying.

His decision last fall to file a lawsuit against the state of Massachusetts seeking the right to die using self-administered medication was one of the toughest decisions he ever made, said retired primary care doctor Roger M. Kligler, M.D.

Kligler, who is terminally ill with metastatic prostate cancer, wrote about his decision in Boston Magazine.

“I don’t know when death will arrive. It could be a few months or a few years . . . What does scare me, however, is the strong likelihood that I will spend my last days on earth unable to do the normal things that make life enjoyable, losing my autonomy and dignity, being barely alive yet in severe pain, drifting in and out of a morphine-induced haze while my loved ones take shifts on a deathwatch. That is not how I want to die. Would you?” Kligler asked.

Kligler filed the lawsuit in Suffolk Superior Court in Boston along with fellow physician Alan Steinbach, M.D. and a national nonprofit group called Compassion & Choices, because he said he should be free to determine how much suffering is too much during his final days.

Kligler’s legal fight comes at a time when physician assistance in dying is gaining unprecedented acceptance in the United States. Close to 20% of Americans live in jurisdictions where adults can legally end their lives if they are terminally ill and meet eligibility requirements, according to The New York Times.

The option became available to even more Americans when aid-in-dying legislation took effect last June in California, the nation’s most populous state, and when Colorado voters approved a ballot question in November that allows physicians to write prescriptions for lethal drugs for patients who qualify. Oregon, Washington, Vermont and the District of Columbia also have similar laws.

Kligler said that although Massachusetts is the "world’s hub of medical innovation," the state lags behind on this right.

“Time is not on my side," he said, arguing that terminally ill people cannot wait for the question to land on a ballot and hope it passes or for the legislature to act.

Even if his lawsuit is successful, Kligler said he can’t say whether he would actually take the medication to help him die, but he wants the option. In fact, few people have actually used physician-assisted suicide, according to The Times. After almost 20 years in Oregon and eight in Washington, less than 1% of annual deaths involve a legal prescription, since only about a third of people who receive a prescription actually use it.