Physician-Assisted Suicide Voted Down in Maine

June 05, 2013

The Maine House of Representatives overwhelming defeated a bill on May 31 that would have made the state the fourth in the nation to explicitly legalize physician-assisted suicide.

The vote was 95 to 43 to squelch the measure.

The idea of allowing physicians to help the terminally ill die on their own terms has gone before voters and lawmakers over the past 12 months with mixed results. Voters in Massachusetts last November rejected a physician-assisted suicide proposal in a referendum while Vermont lawmakers approved a similar measure on May 13.

In addition to Vermont, other states that have passed physician-assisted suicide laws — sometimes called death-with-dignity laws — are Oregon and Washington. The practice is technically legal in Montana because the state supreme court has ruled that existing state law and public policy do not prohibit physicians from helping terminally ill patients end their lives. In April, the Montana state senate defeated a bill approved by the state house that would have banned physician-assisted suicide and jailed participating physicians for up to 10 years.

Oregon's ground-breaking law, which took effect in 1998, has served as a template for legislation passed in Washington and Vermont and defeated in Massachusetts. The bill voted down in Maine is markedly different. It would have allowed terminally ill patients to sign an end-of-life document directing a physician to order or deliver care "that may hasten or bring about the patient's death." The law would have shielded participating physicians from civil or criminal liability or professional discipline if they signed a document swearing that the patient had made an informed decision to accept lethal treatment after a discussion of his or her condition and care options.

The laws in Oregon, Washington, and Vermont are far more specific. They limit the life-ending treatment to a lethal dose of a narcotic which the physician prescribes and which the patient self-administers. In addition, the laws stipulate requirements not found in the Maine bill. The prescribing physician and a consulting physician must agree that the patient:

· has most likely only 6 months to live,

· is voluntarily requesting physician-assisted suicide, and

· is competent and making an informed decision.

In addition, the patient must request the drug twice, with a span of 15 days in between.

The Maine Medical Association opposed the bill to legalize physician-assisted suicide, as did the Maine Osteopathic Association, which called it "very dangerous public policy." Both groups have coupled this opposition with support for palliative care at the end of life. Their stance reflects the thinking of many other state and national medical societies, including the American Medical Association, which hold that physician-assisted suicide is incompatible with the physician's role as healer.

Supporters of physician-assisted suicide counter that terminally ill patients have the right to choose when they die, and that the Oregon and Washington laws authorizing the practice have worked out well and have not been misused.

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