April 05, 2020

The Death with Dignity Act is on life-support in the Legislature and its prognosis is dismal. It may not make it this session, but the popular support for physician-assisted suicide means that it will be back. It should; this is a valuable bill that deserves passage.

LD 916, heard and largely rejected by the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee this week, sets standards on how and under what circumstances a physician may help a terminally ill patient die. The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Joe Brooks of Winterport, contains extensive safeguards to reflect the enormous difficulty of the proposal.

The bill requires that two physicians confirm in writing that a mentally competent but terminally ill patient has made a sound voluntary decision to end his or her life. A psychiatrist must determine that the patient is not suffering from a psychological disorder. The patient must repeatedly request, orally and in writing, medication to die and wait at least 15 days for a prescription to be written.

These restrictions impose order on the practice of assisted suicide, which already exists informally for a few terminally ill people but not for others who would choose it. Justice Stephen Breyer, in a ruling on assisted suicide last year, noted the possibility of this when he wrote that the ruling does “not prohibit doctors from providing patients with drugs sufficient to control pain despite the risk that those drugs themselves will kill.”

This double effect of easing pain and, in the process, hastening a death currently is unregulated. The bill’s standards would offer a way for people who make this decision to be certain that this final act is not carried out recklessly. It would extend to a greater number of terminally ill patients the option to say, “Enough.”

Just knowing that such an alternative exists, even if a patient does not intend to use it, could be a comfort. It is no surprise that a recent poll by Strategic Marketing Services found that approximately 70 percent of Mainers supported assisted-suicide legislation.

Opponents of the assisted-suicide bill have urged lawmakers to instead look at improved end-of-life care before approving the bill. Improving care is always desirable, but nothing has drawn attention to care as this bill has. Passing this legislation would intensify this discussion as well as give more terminally ill people more control over the end of their lives.

For people capable of making rational choices about their lives, that is not too much to ask.

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