Maine considers law on assisted suicide

To kill or not to kill, that was the question before Maine voters during the November elections. At the time of publication, Maine voters appeared poised to legalize physician-assisted suicide.

Called the Maine Death with Dignity Act, the proposal would allow adults of sound mind facing death from a terminal illness to seek a doctor’s help in getting drugs with which to take their own life. The measure is modeled after the Oregon law, which has been in effect for three years.

Supporters call the proposal a practical law that gives patients the right to meet death on their own terms, while opponents decry it as something that would undermine the practice of medicine and lead to euthanasia.

Voters’ support

Polls taken prior to election day show support among voters. "I think it . . . reinforces the power of the individual to determine their choices around end-of-life care," says Elizabeth Weiss, MD, a Bangor internal medicine specialist and supporter of the referendum measure.

For Laurel Coleman, MD, an Augusta internist and an opponent of the act, "it’s asking physicians to participate in suicides, actively helping people kill themselves. That changes the roles of physicians and could cause some patients not to trust doctors," Coleman says.

Among other provisions, the bill would:

• require two physicians to confirm the diagnosis and prognosis;

• require a second opinion from a specialist in the patient’s disease;

• require consultation with a specialist in palliative or comfort care, to ensure the patient is receiving appropriate pain relief;

• prohibit sanctions against health care providers who decline to help a patient get a life-ending prescription;

• prohibit euthanasia or mercy killing;

• require the patient to make three requests for medication, two verbally and one in writing;

• require two waiting periods, one of 15 days, the second of 48 hours.

Opponents include most of the state’s major medical organizations, including the Maine Medical Association, Maine Hospice Council, the Maine Hospital Association, and the Portland Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church. Together, they are allied under the name Maine Citizens Against the Dangers of Physician-Assisted Suicide.