Capitol Notebook: Lawmakers weigh 'Death with Dignity' bill

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Death comes to all of us, but its approach is difficult to discuss.

But the subject of death, and a debate about the proper treatments that should be available to people who are terminally ill, attracted scores of people to a legislative hearing room last week.

Many urged support for a proposed law (LD 1270) that would permit people facing terminal illness to obtain lethal drugs that would control the manner of their death.

This proposal is modeled after a law signed in 2013 in Vermont, which is now one of five states that allow a terminal patient to obtain lethal drugs. Maine’s proposed bill was introduced by Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, and he told the committee it would extend the freedoms we cherish to patients’ end-of-life choices.

“What business is it of the state to deny my right to choose?” he said.

With shaking voices, several speakers at the public hearing recalled the painful deaths of their adult children who succumbed to cancers, and spouses who died after prolonged suffering. Because they were in Maine, the patients were not able to obtain from a doctor the means to end suffering.

“I could not provide the option that he wanted at the end,” said Sarah Witte of Yarmouth, whose 27-year-old son died a painful death from brain cancer. “He would have chosen a less painful end if he could have.”

Chuck Remmel of Portland, the father of Ethan Remmel, also testified in favor of the bill. Ethan, an associate professor at Western Washington University and father of two young boys, was diagnosed at the age of 40 with a stage-four colon cancer after months of pain and some early misdiagnosis. After trying various chemotherapy with difficult side effects, he procured the drugs that enabled him to end his own life. He died in June, 2011, at the age of 41, surrounded by his family, parents and best friend.

Ethan chronicled his struggle with the disease and his decision to end his life in a blog published by Psychology Today.

“Traditional medical care treats illness as a battle. Living is winning, dying is losing. But I find this battle metaphor unhelpful in dealing with terminal illness like mine. Living is not winning if the quality of life is low. And I don’t accept that dying is losing. I think it is possible to die well, and the inevitable end does not have to be considered defeat.”

He also described the debility resulting from the chemotherapy.

“Going to chemo feels like going to my own execution, except they don’t kill me, just make me sick, and they are super friendly and nice about it,” he wrote.

At the hearing, Marina Delune of Belfast said she suffers from disseminated nodal marginal zone lymphoma, which will eventually grow tumors that press on her windpipe, esophagus and lungs, making it impossible for her to eat or breathe. She wants the option to control what happens at the end.

Testifying against the bill were lobbyists for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, the Maine Right to Life Committee, Maine Medical Association, The Maine Christian Civic League and others.

The Health and Human Services Committee will consider LD 1270 at a work session Friday, May 22, at 1 p.m.

Changes to Bottle Bill sink

A unanimous vote in the Environmental Committee spelled doom for beverage industry-backed changes to Maine’s popular bottle bill (Capitol Notebook, “Trying to break Maine’s Bottle Bill, April 27).

LD 1204 would have removed larger returnable bottles from the redemption process, saving money for the beverage distributors that must pay to recycle them, and slashing revenues for the small redemption centers that are paid to handle returnable bottles. The bill could return next year.

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Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.