Health & Science

Maine weighs death with dignity bill again

Maine lawmakers are considering another bill that would allow physicians to prescribe terminally ill people a fatal dose of medication if they request it.

Dozens of supporters and critics testified at a Wednesday hearing regarding the proposed legislation sponsored by Democratic Rep. Patty Hymanson. Though Maine has the oldest residents in the U.S., the bill would allow patients facing death within six months from a terminal disease to be given a fatal dose of medication by a doctor and administer it themselves.

A similar bill passed Maine's Senate in 2017 but it died in the House.

If lawmakers fail to pass the new law, supporters are gathering signatures to put the matter on the ballot to allow voters to decide.

"The bill before you safeguards against someone with dementia, mental illness, inability to understand or who is coerced to use this process," Hymanson said Wednesday.

Hymanson modeled the bill after a 1997 Oregon law that allows terminally ill patients to take medicine given by a doctor in order to end their lives.

Laws allowing medical aid in dying are legal in Oregon and six other states — California, Colorado, Hawaii, Montana, Vermont and Washington — as well as the District of Columbia.

She said Oregon's data shows 79% of patients who utilized the law had cancer, while 93% died at home and 90% had hospice services. Top concerns reported by such patients included loss of autonomy, decreased ability to participate in a meaningful life and loss of dignity, Hymanson added.

Right-to-life, religious groups, medical professionals and others argued lawmakers should instead focus on improving end-of-life care, including hospice and mental health treatment.

Benton hospice nurse Kristina Terry said she once cared for a woman who began to refuse medication in efforts to hasten her death. She said she and her colleagues focused on discovering what gave the women meaning.

"She moved from a state of mind of wanting to die to allowing death to come naturally and being at peace with it," Terry said in a written testimony to lawmakers.

But supporters said Maine's bill includes protections aimed at protecting vulnerable individuals while providing them the option to choose.

The newest bill would allow patients with terminal illnesses to ask for a fatal dosage of prescription drugs. Patients would need to follow a procedure that includes two waiting periods, a second opinion by a consulting physician, along with one written and two oral requests.

The bill would also criminalize the act of coercing a person into requesting such medications. Health care providers could also opt-out.

Beals resident Valerie Aponik, a retired nurse, said people with a terminal illness and a sound mind should be able to choose to end life on their terms.

"They do not want to suffer as they wait for the body's systems to finally let go," she said.

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