Maine Gov. Janet Mills signed into law a contentious bill that will allow some terminally ill patients to request life-ending medication.
The governor announced her decision after the Democratic-controlled Legislature enacted the proposal by narrow margins — three votes in the Senate, one vote in the House.
Mills told reporters during a press conference in her office that she agonized over a decision to join Maine with seven other states that allow terminally ill patients to end their lives with medication. And, like many of the lawmakers who grappled with the morality of a measure dubbed "death with dignity" by supporters and "assisted suicide" by opponents, the governor says she made her decision based on a legal review of an issue that encompasses the rights of self-determination and government-sanctioned suicide.
"Perhaps for these reasons and perhaps for others I cannot articulate at this time, I've decided to sign L.D. 1313," she says.
Mills said she was influenced by conversations she had with supporters and opponents of the law.
"My decision was the result of weighing the pros and cons and experiences of many other people in the state of Maine and their desires and cautions and concerns," Mills says.
Mills was solemn during her press conference, a mood that reflects what she said was the toughest decision she has made so far in her six months as governor. Only reporters and staff were present when Mills signed the bill in her office. The bill’s sponsors and supporters waited outside in the Hall of Flags
Backed by a Democratic-controlled Legislature, she has achieved many of the policy goals she campaigned on last year, but she says a law that will allow patients with less than six months to live the right to request life-ending medication was not on her list of priorities.
"It is my hope that this law, while respecting the right of personal liberty, will be used sparingly," she says.
The bill was sponsored by Rep. Patricia Hymanson, a Democrat and retired physician from York. Hymanson cobbled together a bipartisan coalition of seven lawmakers to back her bill, previous versions of which have failed multiple times in the Legislature.
Rep. Michele Meyer, a Democrat from Eliot, is a registered nurse and co-sponsor. She says she understands why the governor agonized over her decision.
"I have a great deal of respect for the process that's she's gone through. This is a sensitive issue. It's a difficult issue for everyone involved," Meyer says.
Meyer was also glad that Mills also signed an executive order that will order state agencies to track use of the law and to make sure it isn't abused. Such tracking is consistent with steps that other states have taken after enacting “death with dignity” laws.
The new law is modeled after a 1997 Oregon law, the first of its kind. Seven other states including Vermont and Washington have adopted similar statutes. Half of those states enacted the laws by ballot initiative, an option that loomed large as Maine lawmakers considered Hymanson's bill.
The Maine Death with Dignity group had already organized a ballot initiative that could put the issue directly to voters if the bill had failed. But with Mills' signature, that campaign is no longer needed.