Maine Lawmakers Revisit Contentious Proposal To Allow Terminally Ill Patients To End Their Lives

Apr 9, 2019

For the third time in four years, Maine lawmakers will consider a bill that will allow some terminally-ill patients to request life-ending medication.

The initiative is described by supporters as “death with dignity” and by opponents as “assisted suicide,” and it has divided health care professionals and state lawmakers in the past. But if the new bill fails, Maine voters could be asked to decide the issue.

Republican state Sen. Marianne Moore of Calais once worked as a cancer patient navigator. But she says the experience that would shape her views on what’s sometimes called “aid in dying” came after her father was diagnosed with inoperable colon cancer in 1993.

She says although he declined chemotherapy, the cancer went into remission. But after four years, it returned, sweeping through his body and putting him in hospice and on morphine.

By the end, Moore says she became convinced that, if given the chance, her father would have made the choice afforded to other terminally-ill patients in six other states: to end his life with medication.

“He had made peace with death months earlier, but was now incoherent of his condition,” She says. “He would have been horrified to know that he was wearing diapers and that my niece, who was a CNA, was the one taking care of his most personal hygiene needs. I know in my heart if daddy would have been able to direct his death with dignity, he would have left this world at peace and with little pain.”

Moore shared her story during a press conference Monday that is certain to bring forth dozens more on an issue so personal, so polarizing that even its description can shape opinions.

Moore and other supporters call it “death with dignity.” Opponents call it physician-assisted suicide, a pejorative designed to reflect what they believe is an act that can be abused by insurance companies or doctors, or that is simply against their religious beliefs.

That was the position taken by Republican state Rep. Sheldon Hanington two years ago when he testified against a similar proposal because it reminded him of his own father’s battle with the cancer that took his life.

“I’m a firm believer that life starts with conception and it ends with the last breath,” Hanington told the Health and Human Services Committee in 2017. “Do I want to be any part of that? No. Any of us that calls ourselves Christian, we don’t want to do that.”

These shared experiences with death have not done much to ease the intense division over bills aimed at granting patients the right to end their lives.

The 2017 hearing drew testimony from over 100 people and organizations who offered views that cut across political parties. Even health care professionals were divided.

The American Nurses Association opposed the bill because it said that assisting in euthanasia is a direct violation of the nurses’ code of ethics.

The new measure would allow patients with less than six months to live the right to request life-ending medication. Democratic state Rep. Michele Meyer, a registered nurse from Eliot, told reporters during Monday’s news conference that the bill is designed to give those patients a choice.

“A choice to reject the notion that they must be passive victims to a frequently brutal disease that often strips them of their dignity and autonomy,” she says.

The proposal, like its predecessors, is modeled after a 1997 Oregon law, the first of its kind. Five other states including Vermont and Washington have adopted similar statutes.

The opposition isn’t always philosophical or based on religious beliefs. Two years ago, Disability Rights Maine openly worried that an aid-in-dying law could affect patients with disabilities because they’re not always informed of medical decisions made on their behalf.

Other opponents argued that it could be manipulated by insurance companies or those who exploit and abuse the elderly.

But Democratic Rep. Patricia Hymanson, a physician from York, says the new bill is narrowly tailored and would require consent from patients deemed cognitively competent by doctors. And she believes it has public support, citing a poll taken two years ago, when the last bill failed to emerge from a Legislature in which power was divided.

Hymanson says it showed that 3 in 4 Maine voters supported the measure.

“As we’re representatives, we all need to take stock of that number,” she says. “That being said it’s a very private issue for a lot of people and I think all we can do is keep the discussion going.”

The debate could continue well beyond Wednesday’s public hearing before the Health and Human Services Committee.

The Maine Death with Dignity group has already organized a ballot initiative that could put the issue directly to voters, an avenue taken by half of the states that have already adopted such laws.

Originally published April 8, 2019 at 1:14 p.m. ET.