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.

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  • splurker

    totally agree, waiting for the onslaught of your merry-right wingers to dig out their bibles and point to same arcane phrase telling them not to do it. “we want less government..but we get to have a say in everything thats none of our personal business..”

    • yathink2011

      Not having a very good day huh? Sorry to hear it.

      • splurker

        actually, having a great day…thanks!

        • yathink2011

          You seem confused. Don’t let it get to you. The next election will increase the Republican Majority and they’ll fix everything.

          • EdBeem

            GOP controls the White House and both houses of congress, as well as both houses of Maine legislature and the Blaine House and they still can’t accomplish a thing. Conservatives cannot lead because all they know how to do is stomp on the brake.

          • Queenie42

            I agree, they can’t govern but please don’t call them conservative. They are radicals out to tear down our government, our environment and our Constitution.
            Resist!

  • Chew H Bird

    These decisions need to be made in private, between people and their doctors, and (if applicable), spouse or other major family member or “special” person. I’m pretty sure a lot of the consternation is about abuse of such a law, or abuse of a person unable to fend for themselves. Also, insurance companies usually do not pay out life insurance if cause of death is suicide… Hmmmmmm.

  • Bradley Williams

    Correction please: Here is the rest of the story.
    Your source has done you a disservice. The promoters of assisted suicide have worn out their thesaurus attempting to imply that it is legal in Montana. Assisted suicide is a homicide in Montana. Our MT Supreme Court did ruled that if a doctor is charged with a homicide they might have a potential defense based on consent. The MT Supreme Court acknowledged it is a homicide in the ruling.

    The Court did not address civil liabilities and they vacated the lower court’s claim that it was a constitutional right. Unlike Oregon no one in Montana has immunity from civil or criminal prosecution, death certificates are not legally falsified and investigations are not prohibited like in OR, WA and CA. Does that sound legal to you?

    Perhaps the promoters are frustrated that even though they were the largest lobbying spender in Montana their Oregon model legalizing assisted suicide bills have been rejected in Montana in 2011, 2013 and 2015. The predatory corporation abandoned their bullying legislative effort in 2017.

    Amending Colorado’s Prop 106 is sorely needed (and OR,WA,CA). The initiative was bought for $8,000,000 of deception. Even as they proclaimed that the poison must be self administered they did not provide for an ordinary witness. The difference is that without a witness it allows forced euthanasia but with a witness they would up hold individual choice.

    Amendments would include requiring a witness to the self administration, restore the illegality of falsifying the death certificate require the posting of the poison applied in the medical record for the sake of good stewardship for future studies, register organ/tissue trafficking, reveal commissions and memorials paid to the corporate facilitators and keep all records for transparent public safety policy
    Bradley Williams
    President
    MTaas org

    • EdBeem

      Baxter v. Montana, was a Montana Supreme Court case, argued on September 2, 2009, and decided on December 31, 2009, that addressed the question of whether the state’s constitution guaranteed terminally ill patients a right to lethal prescription medication from their physicians.[1] The Montana Supreme Court sidestepped the question of if medical aid in dying is guaranteed under Montana State Constitution, instead they ruled on narrower grounds that neither legal precedent nor the state’s statute deem such assistance against public policy, i.e. illegal. [2] Montana is one of six states and Washington DC where aid in dying is authorized including Montana, Colorado, California, Oregon, Washington, and Vermont. [3]

      • Bradley Williams

        No one: doctor, nurse, caregiver, predatory heir or new best friend has immunity from prosecution in Montana unlike in Oregon et al.

        • EdBeem

          The Montana Supreme Court issued a ruling in late 2009 that broadened the state’s Rights of the Terminally Ill Act to include physician-assisted suicide. However, Montana statute does not provide a regulatory framework for doctor-assisted suicide. Instead, the ruling shields doctors from prosecution as long as they have the patient’s request in writing. Several attempts to pass euthanasia-related bills, which would establish rules and procedures for assisted suicide, were made since the ruling, but none have passed.

  • EdBeem

    I have been informed by old friend Max Millard that California also has a death with dignity law.

    “A new death with dignity law allows terminally ill patients to request aid in dying under certain conditions. In 2015, during a special session on health care, the California
    legislature passed a death with dignity bill called the California End of Life Option Act.Dec 14, 2016”

  • Ted Markow

    Thank you for this, Ed.

    In addition to California, D.C. just enacted a death-with-dignity law: https://www.deathwithdignity.org/take-action/.

    I hope to be at the hearing on April 5th. As someone who has been fending off the terminal stage of cancer (only partly successfully), I am a great supporter of death with dignity. It should be my right to die with dignity and comfort instead of the the excruciating death that cancer can bring, or the protracted death by starvation, or worse, the quick but violent end by gunshot.

    I just don’t get the psychology it takes to withhold a humane way for terminally ill people to die at a time and place of their choosing. Compassionate societies just don’t do that.

    The fact of the matter is that we’re all going to die. Let’s not let our fear of that fact cloud our minds and hearts.

    • EdBeem

      Amen!

  • Bradley Williams

    Correction please: Here is the rest of the story.
    Your source has done you a disservice. The promoters of assisted suicide have worn out their thesaurus attempting to imply that it is legal in Montana. Assisted suicide is a homicide in Montana. Our MT Supreme Court did ruled that if a doctor is charged with a homicide they might have a potential defense based on consent. The MT Supreme Court acknowledged it is a homicide in the ruling.

    The Court did not address civil liabilities and they vacated the lower court’s claim that it was a constitutional right. Unlike Oregon no one in Montana has immunity from civil or criminal prosecution, death certificates are not legally falsified and investigations are not prohibited like in OR, WA and CA. Does that sound legal to you?

    Perhaps the promoters are frustrated that even though they were the largest lobbying spender in Montana their Oregon model legalizing assisted suicide bills have been rejected in Montana in 2011, 2013 and 2015. The predatory corporation abandoned their bullying legislative effort in 2017.

    Amending Colorado’s Prop 106 is sorely needed (and OR,WA,CA). The initiative was bought for $8,000,000 of deception. Even as they proclaimed that the poison must be self administered they did not provide for an ordinary witness. The difference is that without a witness it allows forced euthanasia but with a witness they would up hold individual choice.

    Amendments would include requiring a witness to the self administration, restore the illegality of falsifying the death certificate require the posting of the poison applied in the medical record for the sake of good stewardship for future studies, register organ/tissue trafficking, reveal commissions and memorials paid to the corporate facilitators and keep all records for transparent public safety policy
    Bradley Williams
    President
    MTaas org