Bill allowing doctor-assisted suicide has troubling aspects

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More than a decade ago, the people of Maine soundly defeated a referendum regarding assisted suicide. Last year, the residents of Massachusetts also defeated legislation that would have legalized assisted suicide. Bills in Connecticut and Vermont were killed earlier in the year in those state legislatures.

Despite that overwhelming opposition to assisted suicide, Rep. Joseph Brooks, U-Winterport, has introduced LD 1065, “An act regarding patient care at the end of life” in the Maine Legislature, with a hearing scheduled for April 29.

The bill has many aspects that are troubling.

Unlike the assisted suicide law in Oregon, which has questionable safeguards in place — namely that two doctors need to agree with the terminal diagnosis — the proposed law by Rep. Brooks requires only “the opinion of one doctor,” and terminal diagnosis means only a limited life expectancy, saying nothing about whether that means six days, six months, or six years.

Brooks’ proposal calls for a patient to sign a document that will grant immunity to the physician if a patient chooses to “accept care that is ordered by a physician that may hasten or bring about a patient’s death.” Under the proposed law, a physician must also sign the document, but there is no review by a second doctor to confirm diagnosis or question a person’s mental state.

In fact, the proposed law would have less oversight than the state’s current medical marijuana program. It could be significantly easier to commit assisted suicide than it is to get a legal medical marijuana recommendation under the proposed legislation.

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In Oregon, the state with the oldest assisted suicide laws in the country, it is not incurable pain that causes people to want to end their lives. Last year in Oregon, 57 percent of assisted suicide users were reported as feeling like a burden on their family and caregivers.

As proponents of Oregon’s law admit, and as Oregon’s physician reporting form states, it is social pressures like those that drive the movement for legalized assisted suicide.

Doctors report people choosing suicide because of loss of dignity, loss of autonomy, and loss of control of bodily functions. Certainly those are issues for a wide variety of people who face life-changing illnesses and disabilities, but those issues are socially driven, and while many of those conditions — such as the loss of bodily functions — can be tiring, frustrating and, at times, humiliating, people have a natural capacity to adapt.

Our society has made tremendous strides in the ways we can manage such issues. One doctor may not even be aware of all the treatment options available to a patient.

Additionally, with increased cuts to the social safety net, the “choice” of assisted suicide may not be a true choice.

In Oregon, Barbara Wagner and Randy Stroup, Oregon Medicaid recipients, received letters from Oregon Medicaid denying coverage for their prescribed chemotherapy. Their letters noted, however, that the state would cover the $100 cost of doctor assisted suicide.

Because assisted suicide will always be the cheapest treatment, its availability will inevitably affect medical decision-making. That will actually end up constraining choice and denying people the lives and liberty that all people deserve.

Sometimes it takes months to get basic medical supplies covered through MaineCare — a process that can drive even the most resilient people with disabilities to frustration. For someone dealing with a new diagnosis without proper supports, trying to navigate the bureaucracy while trying to obtain mobility devices or other items critical to daily living, one can see how vulnerable patients may see assisted suicide as an easier choice.

Suicide is causing more deaths in the U.S. military than wounds suffered on the battlefields; suicide rates for teenagers are also at historically high rates. As a civilized society, we ought to do everything possible to prevent anyone from taking their own lives.

To allow a group of citizens to commit suicide isn’t freedom or liberty, it is discrimination because we should be extending suicide prevention to the people who have chronic or terminal health conditions.

Doctors make mistakes; under this law, a medical mistake could be deadly only because doctor-assisted suicide would be an accessible choice. As the proposed bill is written now, medical professionals could make a deadly decision that would not be caught by a second doctor because, under LD1065, there is no requirement that more than one doctor be involved.

Finally, Maine makes a considerable amount of money from tourism. As residents of this great state, we are fortunate to live where others can only dream to visit. If LD 1065 passes, our state could become a hotbed for suicide tourism, which is a sad and quite perplexing twist on the state’s “Vacationland” motto.

Michael Reynolds of Lewiston is a writer and Web designer for Ability Maine, a disability rights website funded by Resources Organizing for Social Change, a nonprofit based in Monroe. He is a long-time activist and was born with cerebral palsy.

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