December 10, 2019
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Maine Senate casts key vote to allow doctors to help terminally ill patients end their lives

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Both chambers of the Democratic-led Maine Legislature have given initial approval to a measure that would allow doctors to prescribe life-ending medication to terminally ill patients after a narrow vote in the Senate on Thursday.

The bill from Rep. Patty Hymanson, D-York, would make Maine the ninth state to pass what proponents call a “death with dignity” law, bypassing a statewide referendum that proponents slated for 2020. It is backed largely by Democrats and opposed by social conservatives.

The proposal passed the Senate in a 19-16 vote on Thursday. It largely divided along party lines, with all Democrats but Sens. Michael Carpenter of Houlton and Bill Diamond of Windham backing it. One Republican, Sen. Marianne Moore of Calais, supported it after a long debate. It passed the House in a 72-68 vote on Tuesday.

Hymanson’s bill would allow people suffering from terminal illnesses to get life-ending medication from a doctor after waiting periods, a written request and two oral requests, a screening for mental health conditions and second opinion from a doctor. Forging or coercing a request and concealing the withdrawal of a request would be a felony.

The text of the proposal largely mirrors the version that is the subject of a referendum drive that has been nearly solely funded by the Death with Dignity National Center, an Oregon group that helped write the first-in-the-nation law passed there in 1997. Between 1998 and 2015, more than three-fourths of the people who died under the law there had cancer, according to a study.

Moore’s father died of cancer. As a cancer patient navigator, she said that a lung cancer patient she worked with told her he was “ready to give up” on frequent treatments. She urged him to continue. On the day of a scheduled treatment, he drove to a back road and shot himself.

“I truly believe had the death with dignity opportunity been available, his death would have been peaceful, surrounded by loved ones instead of dying alone on the side of a road,” Moore said.

Social conservative groups including the Christian Civic League of Maine have opposed the bill, saying the protections in the law are insufficient and that the law would negatively alter the doctor-patient relationship. Republicans made religious arguments against it on Thursday and said it would amount to state-sanctioned suicide.

“This will change our culture in which medicine has been practiced,” said Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Albion. “It takes the profession of medicine [from] permitting the tools of healing to be used as techniques of killing.”

Maine has long been on the cusp of passing such a bill. Maine voters in 2000 narrowly rejected a similar effort with 51 percent of votes and this is the seventh legislative effort since 1992 to pass such a law. The Republican-led Maine Senate backed a similar bill in 2017, though Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, hasn’t taken a stance on this year’s bill.

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