The Universal Notebook: The right to death with dignity

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Mainers have been trying for years to pass some form of death with dignity law to allow people to make end-of-life decisions for themselves.

We came close in 2015, when a bill passed the House 76-70, but failed in the state Senate by a single vote, 18-17.

The Legislature is now considering LD 347, “An Act to Support Death with Dignity.” A hearing on the bill is scheduled for April 5. God willing, it will pass this time.

“It’s looking better this year,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta. “It’s one of those issues that was new to people, but, as with marriage equality, as it becomes part of the public consciousness more and more people see the wisdom in it. And there has been a significant experience with it now in Oregon, where it has worked as intended and without the dire consequences some people feared.”

Close to 70 percent of Americans support making it legal for doctors to assist patients in ending their lives painlessly, but only five states – Oregon, Washington, Vermont, New Mexico and Montana – have enacted death-with-dignity laws, primarily because Americans are so conflicted about death with dignity.

Is it playing God? Is it suicide? Is it a slippery slope to euthanizing the elderly and disabled? Will hospitals, doctors and clergy be forced to act against their own consciences? The answer to all these questions is no.

Our ambivalence about the issue of voluntary death is such that we have no problem with passive acceptance of death. In fact, we are urged to have an advanced directive about what level of medical intervention we desire at the point of death, and hospitals ask patients or their families to sign do-not-resuscitate orders. Palliative care and hospice care are fine, but when it comes to active assistance in the dying process, we turn ourselves inside out.

People are already taking responsibility for their own deaths. My old friend Phyllis made the decision to die last year after years of increasing pain and suffering. On her 75th birthday, she simply stopped eating. It took her a week to die. It shouldn’t have to take that long.

LD 347 prescribes a very deliberate process one must follow in order to have a physician prescribe lethal drugs to be self-administered. The bill is designed to meet all of the standard objections. It provides protections for physicians, pharmacists, other health-care providers, hospitals and insurers and a prohibition against “lethal injection, mercy killing or active euthanasia.”

The LD 347 process is so cautious and conservative that, even if enacted, it will not be of use to many patients who do not have the time to follow its prescriptions.

The process requires a patient to 1) make an oral request for drugs, 2) make a second request at least 15 days later and 3) make a written request at least one day after the second request. The request must be signed by the patient in the presence of two witnesses. The patient must also sign a consent form giving a pharmacist permission to dispense the requested drugs.

Clearly, no one is going to make a rash, spur-of-the-moment decision to end their life under such a system.

The greatest obstacles to relieving human suffering at the end of life are cultural and political. In his 2009 book, “The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia,” Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch distills the essence of the puritanical attitude underlying opposition to death with dignity.

“All human beings are intrinsically valuable,” Gorsuch wrote, “and the intentional taking of human life by private persons is always wrong.”

Note that Gorsuch said “private persons.” Conservatives believe that it is just fine for agents of the state – police, military, courts, penal authorities – to intentionally take a human life. The hypocritical irony here is that conservatives, the very ones who make such a huge fuss about getting government out of their lives, have no problem at all with the government telling you who you can marry or have sex with, when you must give birth, and how you must die.

In 2015, Sen. Katz read a letter from a Sabattus woman on the Senate floor that pretty much says it all as far as I am concerned.

“If you want to fight to the last moment to cheat death, go for it. It’s not my place to judge,” she wrote. “But if you want otherwise for yourself, what possible business is it of the state of Maine to prevent me from exercising my right to have a death of my choice?”

Our pets have more humane deaths than we do. That must change.

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