February 8, 2012

Choosing when to go

His quality of life declining, Norman Morse wants all to know that he's made a very sane and sensible decision.

By Kelley Bouchard kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

FALMOUTH - Norman Morse has always been decisive.

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“Why shouldn’t I be able to end my life in a painless, peaceful and dignified way?” asks Norman Morse, 91, of Falmouth.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Morse holds photos from his time of military service during World War II.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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When he realized that school wasn't his thing, he dropped out of the College of William & Mary and took a job with a New York City real estate company, launching a career that spanned nearly 50 years.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he didn't want to wait for his draft number to be called, so he joined the Army and led a radar company in Gen. George S. Patton's assault on Germany.

He traveled the world on ocean liners and piloted his own sailboats along the nooks and crannies of the Northeast. He fell in love a few times, married twice and, after retiring in 1987, moved to Portland because he thought it was the best place to spend the rest of his life and much of his wealth on various local causes.

Now, at age 91, challenged by mounting health problems and a diminishing quality of life, Norman Morse wants to die.

He wants you to know that he has made this decision sanely and sensibly, after years of consideration that started when he was a much younger man and the infirmities of old age were a distant concern.

He also wants you to know how difficult it has been to accomplish his goal, largely because physician-assisted suicide -- when a doctor administers a lethal dose of a sedative -- is illegal in Maine.

"I've lived long enough," Morse said recently. "Why shouldn't I be able to end my life in a painless, peaceful and dignified way?"

Faced with few options he deemed legal or reasonable, Morse tried to starve himself to death last month and checked himself into Maine Medical Center in Portland. He gave up after 12 days with no food and little water. He told family members that he was unhappy that it was "taking far too long to die" and he was "making too little progress," though his weight dropped from 120 to 100 pounds and he could no longer demonstrate his strength by doing several push-ups.

Morse has resumed eating and is back home now, in his independent-living cottage at OceanView at Falmouth, a retirement community. Nurses and counselors from Hospice of Southern Maine are checking on him daily as he reconsiders his future, which still includes plans to end his life.

Family members and friends are at turns supportive, dismayed and mystified by Morse's efforts. Advocates for end-of-life choices say his struggles aren't uncommon, but his desire to publicize his experience is rare, even as the senior population in the United States grows.

"Death is still taboo and difficult to talk about because we've yet to embrace it as part of life," said Marilyn Gugliucci, Ph.D., director of geriatrics education and research at the College of Osteopathic Medicine at the University of New England.


Morse said he contacted the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram because he wants people to understand why he wants to die and why he believes physician-assisted suicide should be legal.

For him, the right to die is part of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" as outlined in the Declaration of Independence and guaranteed by the Constitution. The fact that physician-assisted suicide is legal only in Oregon makes his eyes flare and his bent frame tense with frustration.

"It's none of the government's business to interfere with medically assisted suicide," Morse said. "I think it's unconstitutional."

Maine voters rejected a proposal to allow physician-assisted suicide in 2000 by a margin of 51 percent to 49 percent. Several medical groups opposed the measure, including the Maine Medical Association and Maine Psychiatric Association; representatives said physician-assisted suicide couldn't be regulated properly and contradicted a doctor's duty to preserve life.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Norman Morse poses for a photograph in May 1944, when he was stationed at Start Point, Devon, England, just weeks before the D-Day invasion at Normandy, France, during World War II. Morse was a second lieutenant in a radar company that followed Gen. George S. Patton's Third Army through France and into Germany.

Family photo

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Norman Morse is shown sailing in Long Island Sound off Southport, Conn., in 1960.

Courtesy Norman Morse

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This picture shows Norman Morse, age 4, sitting on a porch wall beside his older brother, Francis, and mother, Rosamond, in 1924, when the family lived in Pittsfield, Mass. They later moved to Fairfield, Conn., where he lived until retiring to Maine in 1988.

Family photo

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Norman Morse horses around with a cart carrying a friend while visiting Shelter Island, on Long Island, N.Y., in 1950.

Courtesy Norman Morse

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Norman Morse with his first wife, Helen, in 1954, the year they were married.

Courtesy Norman Morse


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