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HLS Officials Draft Assisted Suicide Bill

By Alice S. Lee

A landmark bill permitting and regulating physician-assisted suicide and authored by a group that includes two members of the Harvard community will be introduced into the Massachusetts legislature this year.

Dr. Sidney H. Wanzer, head of Law School Health Services, and Pound Professor of Law James Vorenberg '49 collaborated with seven other Boston area scholars in law, medicine, philosophy and economics to write the bill.

The bill defines those eligible for physician-assisted suicide as people suffering from terminal illnesses and "unbearable pain."

The diagnosis must be made and documented by a doctor responsible for the individual's care, and individuals must be declared free of depression or other mental illness.

"Quite a few physicians assist patients [in suicide]," Wanzer said yesterday.

But physicians fear that without any standards they are vulnerable to law-suits and prosecution, according to Wanzer.

He also said regulation will remove some public fears of physician-assisted suicide.

"If legalized, the procedure will be standardized, [leaving] very little room for abuse," Wanzer said.

Courts in California and Michigan have recently ruled that physician-assisted suicide is legal, decisions which Wanzer said will give impetus to the assisted suicide movement in Massachusetts.

Boston College Law School Professor Charles Baron, the chief author of the legislation, told the Boston Globe that in view of these court decisions those worried about abuses should support the proposed regulations.

"All of a sudden it seems to us that the opponents of physician-assisted suicide, those who have been most wary about it, have at least as much at stake in passing such legislation as the proponents," he told the Globe. "They should help pass a statute that prevents a slide down the slippery slope."

But Wanzer said there is not much risk of abusing legalized suicide.

"A competent patient is making the decision that the situation is not endurable," he said.

With the regulations proposed in the bill, Wanzer said, "we are very unlikely to get into a situation of abuse."

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