Maine House narrowly endorses bill to allow doctors to help dying patients end their lives

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Rep. Patricia Hymanson, D-York.
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The bill from Rep. Patty Hymanson, D-York, is the seventh legislative effort since 1992 to allow the law that supporters call “death with dignity.”
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AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill aimed at bypassing a planned 2020 referendum to allow terminally ill people to request life-ending medication from doctors advanced in a narrow, key vote in the Democratic-led Maine House of Representatives on Tuesday.

The bill from Rep. Patty Hymanson, D-York, is the seventh legislative effort since 1992 to allow the law that supporters call “death with dignity.” Social conservatives have led the charge against the proposal, which would follow similar laws in eight states and Washington, D.C.

Maine has long been on the cusp of passing it. In 2000, a referendum to do it failed with nearly 49 percent of votes. A similar bill to the one being considered now was backed in 2017 by a Republican-led Senate before it failed in the House amid opposition from Republicans and some Democrats.

Hymanson’s bill passed in the House on Tuesday in a 72-68 vote, with all but 16 Democrats voting for it. Only three Republicans — Dennis Keschl of Belgrade, Chris Johansen of Monticello and Dwayne Prescott of North Waterboro — backed it. The bill moves to the Senate, which is also led by Democrats. Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, hasn’t taken a position on the bill.

The proposal largely mirrors the language floated in a referendum drive that began in 2017 and has been almost solely funded by the Death with Dignity National Center, an Oregon-based group that helped write and defend the first-in-the-nation law passed in that state in 1997.

It would allow people suffering from terminal illnesses to get life-ending medication from a doctor after two waiting periods, one written request and two oral requests, screening for depression or other conditions that could impair judgment and a second opinion from a doctor. It would be a felony to forge a request, conceal the withdrawal of one or coerce someone to make a request.

“I would like my loved ones and others here in Maine to have this option,” said Rep. Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth, who in a floor speech backing the bill referenced the recent deaths of her brother and father. “My recent experiences have shown me just how personal death is.”

The measure is opposed by social conservatives — including the Christian Civic League of Maine — that have argued protections in the bill are insufficient and said it would forever alter doctor-patient relationships and said state policy should account for advances in palliative care.

“Intentionally killing a human being is always wrong,” said Rep. MaryAnne Kinney, R-Knox, who opposed the bill. “It erodes respect and equality of every human being and establishes killing as a solution to problems best solved by caring options.”

A 2017 review of deaths under the Oregon program in a journal of the American Medical Association found 991 people there died between 1998 and 2015 using legally prescribed medication. More than three-fourths of them had cancer and 90 percent were in hospice care. More than 90 percent of people cited a loss of autonomy as the reason for the decisions.

A Mills spokesman previously said that the governor hasn’t taken a position on the bill. As a district attorney in 1990, she appealed a judge’s decision allowing the family of 18-year-old Chad Swan of Turner — in a vegetative state a year after a car crash — to refuse to reinsert a feeding tube that kept him alive. Maine’s high court upheld the decision and Swan died.

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