The Universal Notebook: Give us the liberty to choose death

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As a death-denying culture we tend to turn ourselves inside out linguistically to avoid the truth.

The phrase “physician-assisted suicide” and even the far more innocuous “death with dignity” have been replaced in recent years with generic obfuscations of the sort embodied in LD 1270, “An Act Regarding Patient-Directed Care at the End of Life,” which came out of a legislative committee last week with a 7-5 ought-to-pass recommendation.

LD 1270 really ought to pass, but I fear an unholy alliance of the medical establishment and the religious right may stand in the way of Maine joining a handful of enlightened states such as Oregon, Washington and Vermont in making it legal for a physician to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs at the request of a terminally ill patient.

As Baby Boomers start looking into the abyss, we are wrestling with the inevitable in ways no other generation has done. The topic of how to approach sickness, disability and death comes up regularly these days in after-dinner conversations with friends and family. Just about everybody I know would like to have the option of requesting a compassionate life-ending prescription if things got bad enough, whether they would do so or not.

LD 1270, however, may actually be too conservative to be truly compassionate. In order to appease opponents who fear that the option of ending one’s life will lead to a sense of duty to end one’s life, the bill stipulates a process that would defeat the purpose in many cases.

A patient must make an initial oral request for a lethal prescription. Two weeks later, if they are still alive and competent, they must make a second request. A day after the second request, they must put the request in writing with two witnesses. Physicians do not have to prescribe the drugs. Patients must self-administer them. And health-care facilities may elect to prohibit “patient-directed care at the end of life.”

At the May 15 hearing, 44 people testified, 27 in support of LD 1270, 16 in opposition, and one neutral. The proponents tended to be private citizens, while the opponents tended to represent health-care and religious interests. Predictably, the Catholic church and the Christian Civic League oppose the bill.

“For Catholics, and for many other people of faith,” testified Suzanne Lafreniere, director of the office of public policy for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, “life is a sacred gift from God, only he can determine the time of our death.”

As a person of faith I am frankly sick and tired of the Catholic church and religious conservatives trying to force their beliefs on society as a whole. If you think suicide is wrong, don’t do it, but, for heaven’s sake, don’t tell others they cannot end their own pain and suffering in a compassionate way. Public policy does not have to comport with Catholic teachings, only Catholics do.

Theologically, the “only God” argument requires a fatalistic view of divinity in which God intends such things as kindergartners being machine gunned to bloody bits. I don’t believe that for a second and I couldn’t believe in that kind of God. If everything really is as God intends it, then if someone makes the decision to end his or her own suffering that, too, must be part of God’s plan.

The most compelling testimony at the LD 1270 hearing came from Yarmouth land planner and designer Sarah Witte, who described in heartbreaking detail how her 27-year-old son Andrew died from a brain tumor.

“At the end, when the cancer was taking over his brain, and the crushing pain was uncontrollable, even with all the meds at their disposal, I asked the doctor to please, give him a little more. He looked me in the eyes and said very clearly, one word at a time, ‘I. Cannot. Cross. That. Line. Do you understand?’”

No, doctor, I for one do not understand. That’s why, despite its overly cautious approach, I wholeheartedly support LD 1270 as a step in the right direction. We need to cross that line. We need to be able to embrace our own mortality. As it is, we have more compassion for our pets than we do for each other.

“If a competent terminally ill patient who doesn’t have long to live makes an informed decision to end his or her life sooner rather than later,” the bill’s sponsor, Augusta Republican Sen. Roger Katz, said, “a willing physician should be able to assist that with an appropriate prescription.”

Amen to that.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.