Editorial: Death with dignity

Last week, the Governor signed the “Maine Death with Dignity Act” into law. The legislation, LD 1313, allows terminally ill adults with less than six months of life expectancy to end their lives with physician-prescribed medication.

To qualify, a patient must be a Maine resident, terminal, deemed competent by two doctors and have voluntarily expressed the wish to die. Patients who meet those conditions may make a written request for medication that they may self-administer. The law goes into effect 90 days after the adjournment of the Legislature.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature approved the proposal by a narrow margin — three votes in the Senate and just a single vote in the House. Seven other states have enacted similar legislation. The bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Patricia Hymanson (D-York), is a retired physician.

In recognition of the enormity of such a decision, the Maine law contains a number of safeguards. These include two waiting periods and the requirement that patients make at least one written and two oral requests. Terminal patients must receive a second opinion by a consulting physician and a psychological evaluation.

Additionally, Governor Mills issued an executive order requiring the Department of Health and Human Services to track the use of lethal medications, including any medical, demographic or geographic factors involved. That data will be critical in answering important questions, such as whether poor, isolated Mainers might be more likely to end their lives than those with more supports and resources at the end of life.

A terminal disease comes with great anguish, both physical and emotional. Terminal patients aren’t choosing to die — they are already dying. LD 1313 allows them to choose the time and the means. It returns a measure of bodily autonomy to individuals who have ceded much of it to a terrible disease over which they have no control. In that it is similar to advanced health directives in which people spell out what end-of-life care they want — or don’t want.

But it is important to consider that individuals facing death are at one of the most vulnerable points in their lives. Financial pressures or worries about burdening others with their care should have no bearing on their decision. If they do, then what we need is better health care and social supports for the dying, not a “Death with Dignity Act.”

In a statement last week, Bishop Robert Deeley of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, said, “Suicide is always a tragedy. Allowing doctors to prescribe deadly medications to hasten a person’s death is a horrendous wound to the dignity of the human person.”

He argued that the law would place “undue pressure” on the elderly who want to avoid “being a burden to others” and could even lead to a desensitization to the value of human life.

We agree that suicide is always a tragedy. But so is a terminal diagnosis. We hope LD 1313 functions as it was intended — as a choice of last resort, and one made freely.

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