AUGUSTA — Dozens of people turned out Wednesday to argue for and against a pair of bills that would allow Maine doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs to those suffering from terminal illness.
One proposal, sponsored by Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, and announced in a news conference Tuesday at the State House, is similar to a law passed by Vermont in 2013. It’s also similar to a bill that was rejected narrowly by the Maine Legislature in 2015. The other bill, sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Parker, D-South Berwick, is similar and would allow a doctor to prescribe and a patient to self-administer a lethal medication to end the patient’s life.
Under the proposals, patients who are ill and deemed by their doctors to be within six months of dying could request medication to hasten their deaths. They would be required to make two separate spoken requests for the medication, at least 15 days apart, and to sign a written request, among other steps. Two disinterested witnesses also would have to sign that request, vouching that the patient understands it and does not appear to be under duress or undue influence.
Physicians and pharmacists would not be required to grant those requests, according to the bills, and physicians would not be allowed to end a patient’s life by directly administering a lethal injection or other means.
Residents and lawmakers offered heart-wrenching stories Wednesday about loved ones who had died, while others read letters from dying Mainers. If the Legislature passes the bill, Maine would become the sixth state to allow physicians to assist in hastening the death of a terminally ill patient.
“Some public policy decisions are easier than others,” Katz said while presenting the bill to the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. “I suspect that talking about end of life issues is not an easy subject for anyone.”
Katz retold the story of Brittany Maynard, who moved from California to Oregon, which allows physicians to prescribe a lethal dose of medication to a terminally ill patient. Maynard, 29, had a terminal brain cancer and became a national symbol for “death-with-dignity” bills such as Katz’s.
California passed a similar law in 2015. Other states that have approved such laws include Washington, Colorado and Vermont. A 2009 state Supreme Court ruling in Montana determined the practice was not illegal, although there is no state law there permitting it. On the other side, a 2016 state Supreme Court decision in New Mexico upheld a lower court ruling that determined terminal patients had no state constitutional right to have a physician help them end their life.
Katz introduced a similar bill in 2015, but it failed by a single vote in the Maine Senate. So far, Maine’s Republican Gov. Paul LePage has not weighed in on the legislation, and messages to his press secretary were not immediately returned Wednesday.
The issue was in the spotlight during the U.S. Senate confirmation hearings for Judge Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2006, Gorsuch wrote a deeply researched book on the topic that outlines his opposition to laws that allow doctor-assisted suicide.
In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of states with laws permitting the practice.
Opponents of the Maine proposals argued the measure is a “slippery slope” that would lead to state-sponsored euthanasia as a means of saving on medical costs for treating the terminally ill.
“Make no mistake,” said Tim Russell, a Sidney resident. “Physician-prescribed suicide is killing, and once we start legally calling it a treatment, it will become the cheapest treatment available and therefore the most prescribed – destroying the delicate trust relationship between a doctor and patient.”
Others said they were simply morally opposed to a law that would allow doctors to help people kill themselves.
“I believe that life starts at conception and it ends with the last breath,” said state Rep. Sheldon Hanington, R-Lincoln. “Do I want to be any part of that? No. None of us that call ourselves Christians want to do that.”
But others argued that they believed in a merciful creator, and that the bill provides mercy for those suffering with a terminal illness or disease.
Cathy Elliot, of Hampden, said individuals should have the right to make their own choices about death.
“I believe that each person should have the right to choose death with dignity when the time comes,” Elliot said. “I also believe that each person should have the right not to choose death with dignity when the time comes and that their choice should not eliminate my choice.”
Elliot said she has a close friend who has terminal cancer and she wants her friend to have the choice to die in peace if she chooses.
“I would like for her and for so many others, including myself, (to have) the option of choosing the time and place of her death and to have her death be dignified and gentle,” Elliot said. “I also wish this for her husband, her children and her grandchildren, that they not have to watch her suffer in her last days.”
Elliot said she respects those whose religious beliefs would prevent them from taking the option, but noted the legislation doesn’t impose that choice on a dying person.
The bills will face additional work sessions before the committee before going to the full Legislature for consideration.
Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at: