AUGUSTA, Maine — Five years ago, Sarah Witte of Yarmouth faced every parent’s worst nightmare: watching her son die.
Andrew Marshall was 27 years old at the time of his death from a rare form of brain cancer.
“He was terrified of the end,” Witte said. “I promised him I would be there and that we would do everything we could for his comfort.”
But Andrew’s last days were terrible. No amount of medication could ease his pain, right up until he died May 19, 2010.
“The one thing I couldn’t provide in Maine was something Andy wanted, and that was the opportunity to check out at the end,” said Witte, who was one of dozens who spoke Friday for and against a bill to allow terminally ill Mainers to self-administer life-ending drugs.
“I know if he could have chosen a less painful end, he would have,” Witte said. “It makes no sense. We all have to die. We don’t have to die like that.”
A bill sponsored by Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, would allow physician-assisted suicide in Maine but only with a range of caveats, including that the patient has to take lethal drugs by his or her own hand.
Katz’s bill, which is modeled after a law in Vermont, would apply to adults who are terminally ill and who have a limited life expectancy and includes legal protections for physicians, health care facilities and insurance companies. The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee heard testimony on it Friday.
Katz argued individuals have the right to make virtually every other decision about their medical care and end-of-life options should be no exception.
“Life is a continuum. And just as we respect a person’s right to make their own decisions during their own life, that same ability should extend to decisions at the end of life, as well,” Katz said Friday to the committee. “It is about dignity, it is about self-determination and it is about the right to choose one’s own path.”
In addition to dozens of people who testified in support of the bill, numerous people objected to it on moral or religious grounds or because they said Maine’s health care system could be improved in ways that would avoid most patients coming to a situation in which they believe death is their only option.
“Undoubtedly, this bill’s time might eventually come,” Kandyce Powell, executive director of the Maine Hospice Council, said. “Right now, we have so many gaps in our health care delivery system around the state of Maine. We need to ensure that people have access to health care. Rural parts of our state have no access to hospice and palliative care.”
“Hospice and palliative care refer to comfort care given to people with life-threatening illnesses,” Powell said. “I for one do not think the time is right, nor does our organization, to address this issue before we address many of the other access issues in our society.”
Leo Delicata, public policy advocate for Legal Services for the Elderly, spoke neutrally about the bill but said Maine law already allows the liberal use of pain medications, even if doing so could hasten a patient’s death. He said the highest suicide rate in Maine is among older males with serious health problems.
“I don’t think this is a sort of slippery slope, open-the-floodgates kind of bill,” he said. “There just aren’t a lot of people who want to die, even when they’re terminally ill.”
Amanda Carr, a nurse in the Portland area, said one benefit of the bill is that it could provide peace of mind even for patients who never use it.
“Just knowing it’s there might be the one thing that lets them relax and live,” Carr said.
Katz said five states have some kind of “death with dignity” law and that 20 other states have variations of those laws under consideration. In Oregon, which has allowed self-euthanasia since 1998, about 1,100 people have chosen that way of dying, including 95 last year.
Katz’s bill will be the subject of further debate and voting in the coming weeks.