To the Editor:
It was truly an honor to sit at the hearing in Augusta recently on the upcoming death with dignity bills.
Similar bills, pioneered by Oregon almost 20 years ago, are now becoming law, state by state, as public opinion slowly changes. Sitting there, as the hours passed, on a seat in the overflow room, hearing so many end-of-life stories, it was hard not to be convinced that allowing more choice in terminal end-of-life situations is a compassionate act. It is nothing any government should overly regulate.
The issue was not an idle one for me. As my mother neared her 100th birthday, she asked me to find for her a “peaceful pill.” I knew it would give her peace of mind to know it was in her drawer.
Exploring the idea however, I soon was unwilling to brave prosecution for this illegal act. Nor did it seem wise to brave the feud which two of my five siblings promised me, if I obeyed my mother’s wish.
Six months later, my mother became incontinent, refused food and drink, and died peacefully 10 days later.
With these memories still so fresh, I was keen to learn more about this issue. I learned that sometimes all the best hospice care – the best doctoring and pain control – cannot manage extreme pain in some end-of-life situations.
It was striking to hear the difference in tone between those supporting or opposing the bill. The supporters spoke deeply, coming from powerful personal experience. Almost all told stories. The opponents seemed to speak airily about far-off ideas.
In Maine, the details go, if someone is an adult, a resident of the state, is competent to understand, and has a six-month or less prognosis for living; they would be able ask their doctor for a lethal pill. They need to ask again at least two weeks later and then ask a third time in writing.
The doctor, who is not required to comply, must then go through many complicated safeguards before writing the prescription. The proposed law states that patient’s life insurance cannot be denied. The doctor cannot be prosecuted. Hospice care can be continued.
If the patient is in an institution, it can refuse to host the pill-taking. And finally, the taking of the pill must be the patient’s own act.
I came home in a humbled, thoughtful mood. I was proud that Maine was possibly joining other reflective states in fine-tuning their legislation about this deeply personal final decision.