April 02, 2020

Assisted death bill squeaks past panel > Single vote saves issue for Legislature debate

AUGUSTA — With a just-released poll on their desks announcing that 71 percent of people surveyed in Maine would support a bill to legalize physician-assisted suicide, members of the Judiciary Committee almost — but not quite — killed the bill.

Sen. Susan Longley, D-Liberty, co-chairwoman of the committee, cast the one vote which will allow the “Death with Dignity” bill to be debated by the full Legislature. Even that vote was not an endorsement; she said she wanted to ensure that the debate would continue.

Committee members spoke with considerable eloquence — and anguish — about the bill, many of them speaking in personal terms of the need to find ways to make dying easier, but ending with a societal concern that the bill would make it too easy.

One member of the committee talked about spending every evening for six months with a dying relative. One member told about his father, who “was running up Mount Washington in June and three months later I was carrying him in my arms.” One member said he tried to imagine himself on his own deathbed.

“All of us can think of a story or have lived through a story, but as public policy-makers it’s not that easy,” said Rep. Richard Thompson, D-Naples, co-chairman of the committee. “If you asked me in a poll five years ago if I supported physician-assisted suicide, I’d tell you I supported it — but that doesn’t mean I can enact it as public policy.”

The Strategic Marketing Services ominbus poll was conducted between Jan. 16 and 20, with 450 people surveyed statewide. The poll has a margin of error of 4.6 percent.

Rep. Joseph Jabar, D-Waterville, said the committee members had heard from doctors, hospice volunteers and “those who deal with death every day — not just on an individual basis — many of them oppose the bill.”

At a public hearing Monday, the idea of doctors helping terminally ill, mentally competent patients die if the patient chose that option was welcomed by many people but criticized by doctors, hospice workers and psychiatrists.

Sen. John Benoit, R-Rangeley, said he had seen polls like the one released by SMS Wednesday, but he believes that “nine out of 10 doctors don’t support this legislation — yet they’re the ones supposed to make it work.” The bill requires two doctors to certify that the patient is terminally ill and likely to die within six months; the patient must be certified mentally competent; a test must be given to certify that the patient is mentally competent and not depressed; and a waiting period must be observed between the time of the request and the time a doctor would provide a lethal dose to the patient.

“If doctors don’t have more support for it, I have no support for it,” Benoit concluded.

Gordon Smith, the executive vice president of the Maine Medical Association, said he was pleased the bill was not endorsed by the committee, but not disappointed it wasn’t crushed. “It’s an important bill to debate,” he said.

Because so much more work needs to be done to improve care of the dying — particularly in providing more relief for pain and making sure that people in Maine have access to hospice services — he said, “This puts pressure on us to produce. We’ve said people do not need this option if they know their symptoms could be controlled.

“We need to convince people it’s not needed,” he said.

Rep. Joseph Brooks, D-Winterport, said he will, if re-elected, submit the bill again next year. That promise suggests his own pessimism about how the vote will go in the Legislature this session. It could come up as soon as next week, he said.

Some of the 13 members of the committee seemed to be deciding their own feelings as they spoke, saying things like “I came out of the public hearing feeling really ambivalent about the bill,” and “I have gone back and forth.” Rep. Judith Powers, D-Rockport, said, “In situations like this I always fall back on the advice I used as a parent: If in doubt, don’t.”

Longley said she has been torn between the ethical dilemma of giving people “an option in a free society, or protecting the vulnerable.”

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