Gary Anderson

Gary Anderson

As they say, no one gets out of this life alive. Death awaits us all. That certainty isn’t all that attractive to many wishing to believe that life can somehow be prolonged forever, or at least attempted no matter how pointless that exercise might be.

For others the reality of life’s impermanence is something to be anticipated as best one can. Death is simply the unknown. One can do better than going to it kicking and screaming, ravaged by the indignities inflicted by an embarrassing systems failure of one’s own body.

The concept of Death with Dignity is to legally allow end-of-life medical assistance to those terminally ill yet mentally competent seeking a compassionate means to hasten death when such a fate is near, unavoidable and insufferable. The idea is to lawfully sanction a preemptive acceptance of death while life still allows those afflicted some remaining corporeal self-respect, before they are long remembered as reduced to facing death stripped of any semblance of their former self.

It has nothing to do with the concept of suicide. It isn’t the taking of life as a means of avoiding seemingly insurmountable hardship. It’s about taking charge in facing the inevitability of an impending unavoidable death. It’s about maintaining personal sovereignty in determining one’s quality of life in that life’s cruel termination.

It’s not a refutation of hospice care, where palliative treatment attempts to ameliorate the difficulties of one’s final days. It simply argues that medicine can end a life with more compassion than forcing one to choose the slow death demanded by the shameful legal alternative of self-starvation. The great work of hospice care would only be enhanced by an additional legal option in combating suffering when pain medication cannot provide adequate relief.

It is not euthanasia. Euthanasia is a legal kindness we are free to provide to our animal loved ones but not to our own kind. Pets aren’t required to administer their own lethal dose in ending their suffering, or to wait two weeks before imploring an end to their misery for a second time.

In 2000, the argument for “Maine Physician-Assisted Deaths for Terminally Ill Adults” went before the people as Ballot Question 1. It was narrowly defeated, 51 to 49 percent. Maine’s 2015 death with dignity bill, LD1270 “An Act Regarding Patient-directed Care at the End of Life,” passed 76 to 70 in the Maine house but failed in the senate by one vote.

This past month LD347 “An Act to Support Death with Dignity” went before the senate where it was approved by one vote, 18 in favor, 17 opposed. It was then taken up by the house where 85 to 61 voted against passage. It now goes back to the senate, but those that have worked so hard for passage of progressive end-of-life legislation are doubtful of how it will be revisited there.

The rub is that polling shows 73 percent of Mainers approve of enacting such legislation. National polling reveals a similar percentage of Americans favor the right of informed choice towards ending the nightmare of inescapable suffering in one’s remaining days. By lesser margins, a majority of those considering themselves religious or who are practitioners of medicine have no moral objection to medical assistance in such a private act of choosing death over an unbearable and futile continuance of life.

Physician assisted death with dignity is already legal in six states; Oregon, Washington, Vermont, California, Montana and Colorado, as well as Washington DC.

In each, the act of providing medical aid in dying is distinguished by law from the act of suicide. In each, life goes on as before in the way most people exit this existence. Religious institutions remain intact. No death panels have been put in place. Doctors haven’t been forced to participate against their will. Terminally ill patients haven’t chosen death over life in order to reduce the financial burden of ongoing care. Suicide rates among the general populace haven’t escalated in emulation. Elder abuse hasn’t increased due to family members exploiting medically assisted death as a means to early inheritance. Where death with dignity laws have been enacted there’s been no sudden rush to a frivolous longing for death over life. Where already legalized, the vast majority of those in chronic end-of-life pain haven’t availed themselves of the remedy of death.

None of those feared outcomes have taken place thus far where such legislation has been implemented. Safeguards put in place have worked. Yet, much opposing testimony given in committee hearings on LD347 insisted otherwise, as if the outcome of Maine’s proposed law had no precedent. Much argument was instead based on personal belief systems where death should be determined only by divine will and others’ suffering isn’t as important as maintaining that self-comforting religious certitude.

LD347’s legislative impasse reflects a troubling inability of Maine governance to maintain a proper separation of church and state in upholding secular belief in inalienable democratic freedoms. Dying with dignity should be an inarguable, individually ordained, right. Let any divine judgments be made outside the worldly purview of man-made legislation.

Gary Anderson lives in Bath.

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