A proposal to allow physician-assisted suicide may wind up on the ballot for Mainers to decide.
Backers of the Maine Death with Dignity Act, which fell short in the Legislature, plan to launch a petition drive to collect enough signatures to allow a referendum on the issue.
The lead applicant, end-of-life consultant Valerie Lynn Lovelace of Westport Island, told lawmakers this year that she is the founder of It’s My Death, a nonprofit “with the goal of helping people connect with death and dying as a part of living authentically and consciously.”
If it moves forward, the issue is likely to prove controversial. It is opposed by, among others, the Roman Catholic Church, the Maine Hospice Council and the Maine Right to Life Committee.
To get a referendum on the statewide ballot, organizers need to work out the wording with the Secretary of State’s Office and have 18 months to collect at least 61,123 signatures from registered Maine voters.
If they succeed, the Legislature has the option of passing the measure, which is unlikely given that it fell short of votes, 85-61, in the House this year, or putting it on the ballot.
Rep. Richard Bradstreet, R-Vassalboro, said Tuesday it’s hard to be against the idea of letting people vote, but he’s not sure it’s wise. Too often, he said, the results come down to “whoever gets the message out” best rather than which side ought to prevail.
Half a dozen states already allow physician-assisted suicide, but Maine legislators have consistently declined to join their ranks. Critics cite a range of concerns, including a fear that it could be used to exploit vulnerable patients who can’t get the health care they need.
Suzanne Lafreniere of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland told lawmakers this year that “a law permitting assisted suicide would demean the lives of vulnerable patients and expose them to exploitation by those who feel they are better off dead.”
“The voiceless or marginalized in our society – the poor, the frail elderly, racial minorities, millions of people who lack health insurance – would be the first to feel pressure to die,” she said.
But Lovelace said it doesn’t make sense that if she came down with an illness that could not be cured, she could fly to a state that allows physician-assisted suicide to get a prescription “to help me die in a way that preserves my personal sense of autonomy,” but doing the same thing in Maine would be a crime that could put her, her doctor, her family and her pharmacist at risk of prosecution.
“Dying is a deeply private experience that should not have to conform to any other personal, organizational or religious ideas of how it should go,” she said.
Another of the signers of the petition seeking to have a referendum, Dr. Eileen Fingerman of Sidney, testified this year that people “ought to be able to decide how they want their final days to look. Not only for themselves but for their loved ones. They not only want to prevent their own suffering, but they want to spare their family the pain of witnessing their suffering.”
Bradstreet said, though, that life is precious and dying, difficult as it can be, is part of it.
He said he realizes that supporters may want to allow physician-assisted suicide for humane reasons, but he’s worried that it could become “a slippery slope” that would ultimately pressure sick, vulnerable people into going along with it.
Since life “can’t be a bunch of chemicals coming together,” Bradstreet said, it’s important to hold on to a respect for the sanctity of life, even when someone is “very, very ill and suffering.”
The director of the Death with Dignity National Center in Oregon, the first state to allow physician-assisted suicide, said it’s been used only sparingly there.
Peg Sandeen told Maine lawmakers this year that what the Oregon law has mostly done is provide “enormous comfort to terminally ill patients and their families.”
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