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Death With Dignity Bill Fails in Maine House

A bill that would have allowed terminally ill patients to end their lives has failed to pass in the Maine Legislature. Though the Death with Dignity legislation narrowly succeeded the Senate last week, the House voted against it Tuesday with a margin wide enough to end its chances. But supporters say they’ll try again, and may bypass the Legislature.

In her work as a neurologist, Democratic state Rep. Patty Hymanson has seen patients face tough, terminal diagnoses. She told her House colleagues Tuesday that she hears a common question.

“So when you or a loved one faces the last six months of life, the question that you ask yourself, or I’ve heard people ask, ‘Is the enemy suffering, or is the enemy death?’” she says.

Everyone has the right to choose which option they’d like, Hymanson says, and that’s what the Death with Dignity bill offers. It would make it legal for terminally ill patients to get prescription medication to end their lives.

The bill includes a number of safeguards, such as a requirements that patients meet with a physician twice before receiving the prescription and must administer the medication themselves. But those safegaurds don’t get around what some lawmakers, like Republican state Rep. Beth Peloquin Turner, see as a more fundamental problem.

“Our actions here today will send a message across the state about the value and dignity of all human life,” she says.

That message, Turner says, is that life is not valued. Republican state Rep. Deborah Sanderson agrees.

“Enacting this bill could encourage people with years or decades to live to throw away their lives instead of getting proper treatment,” she says.

Beyond shunning treatment, some lawmakers, like Republican state Rep. Stacey Guerin, see the Death with Dignity bill as having more nefarious consequences.

“Because it gives family members or caregivers more opportunities for abuse, creating an environment in which elderly people may feel pressure to opt for a legal prescription rather than being a burden to others or their family,” she says.

But supporters of the Death with Dignity bill say it’s a carefully crafted law that prevents coercion and, instead, says Democratic state Rep. Christopher Babbidge, offers freedom.

“Freedom to control one’s own actions. That’s what freedom really is,” he says.

The question of whether a patient should be able to choose to end their life has come before the Maine Legislature a half dozen times since 1995. This year, the Maine Medical Association changed its stance from “opposed” to neutral.

When Democratic state Rep. Dillon Bates urged lawmakers to support Death with Dignity, he cautioned them from pushing the matter into the future once more because, he says, some Mainers are suffering now.

“I believe it’s really important that we address something to protect these families, to protect the memory of their loved ones and their final wishes if that is the route they so choose,” he says.

But after an hour of debate, the House voted 85-61 against the bill.

“This is one of those areas I think our constituents may be out a little bit ahead of us legislators, and we’ll just have to see if Maine might eventually adopt this concept,” says Republican state Sen. Roger Katz, the bill’s lead sponsor.

Katz will be termed out before he can sponsor the legislation again, and he hopes other lawmakers will make another attempt. But the executive director of the Maine organization It’s My Death says she’s lost confidence in state lawmakers and will look toward possibly bringing the issue to a voter referendum.

This story was originally published on May 23, 2017 at 5:28 p.m.