AUBURN – When high school senior Mike Simpson wrote his local state legislator about legalizing physician-assisted suicide, he expected a routine response. Courteous. Slightly bland.

A form letter.

What he got was anything but.

“I have theorized that we could substitute legislator-assisted suicide for physician-assisted suicide,” wrote Republican Rep. Thomas Shields. “Simply ask your legislator to supply you with a loaded weapon so you can blow your brains out; simple, efficient, but a little messy.”

Simpson was stunned. “I was like ‘Wow, that wasn’t very nice.'”

Simpson wrote to Shields this winter when his Edward Little High School speech teacher assigned him to take an issue he had passion for and do something about it. He chose assisted suicide.

Using a form letter provided by his teacher as a guide, Simpson wrote to state Rep. Thomas Shields and Sen. Neria Douglass, both of Auburn. Identifying himself as a high school student, the then-17-year-old outlined Oregon’s Dying With Dignity Act and respectfully asked the legislators to consider a similar law for Maine.

“I would like to see Maine pass this same act so patients may die with dignity and pass on when they choose, they do not have to suffer for months and sometimes years,” Simpson wrote. “Thank you for your time and I’m looking forward to hearing from you.”

He never heard from Douglass, who said she has not yet had time to reply.

But Shields did respond, a few weeks after Simpson mailed his letter.

In the page-and-a-half response, which began innocuously, Shields thanked the high school student for his letter and commended him for being so well informed about Oregon’s law. The three-term representative said he could understand the feelings of some terminally ill patients, but could not, as a Christian and a doctor, play God.

After that, Shields pondered why someone would need a doctor. He satirically toyed with the idea of legislator-assisted suicide and listed more than a half dozen other ways to die – including the use of sleeping pills and heroin.

“Are these people cowards and can’t do it on their own?” Shields wrote.

The letter, with its biting tone and detailed methods of death, surprised Simpson. “I think he went a little far.”

It infuriated his teacher.

“I had to put it down three times because I was sputtering so much,” said Candy Gleason.

A teacher for 26 years, Gleason has assigned the same project for at least seven years and has never seen a response like Shields.’ She was so angry, she said, that it has taken her a couple of months to calm down enough to talk about it.

“He is essentially mocking my student. He is mocking the entire assisted suicide issue,” she said. “This is how he’s being a role model?”

News of the controversial letter has swept through Simpson’s 1,200-student high school. Students, teachers and administrators constantly ask for copies. Many have been upset at the letter’s language. Others find its tone disrespectful.

Gleason called the letter flip and condescending. She was upset that a legislator would offer a 17-year-old a list of ways people can kill themselves, especially since suicide is the second leading cause of death for teens and young adults in Maine.

“The fact that he suggests suicide to a high school kid is not OK,” she said.

Shields said he didn’t see a problem.

“I resent the implication that I’ve been harsh or cruel or what have you,” he said.

While he said he was “sorry if the language offended anyone,” Shields said he stands behind the letter and everything in it.

“It’s the truth and if they don’t want to face it it’s their problem,” he said.

In a statement issued by the House Republican Office, spokesman Dan Demeritt defended Shields.

“Doctor Thomas Shields is a conscientious and plainspoken legislator. He is also a dedicated physician who has spent a lifetime serving his patients. Physician-assisted suicide is an alien concept to Doctor Shields and many others, a point he tried to make clear by the examples in his letter.”

He commended the Republican representative for writing a thoughtful letter.

“In a lot of respects, it’s a lengthy and time consuming response to a student involved in a school project,” he said. “I think he deserves a lot of credit for that.”

The House Speaker’s Office did not.

“Legislators are free to express their opinions on any subject, but we hope they would do so with respect for their constituents. We don’t condone the approach Representative Shields has taken in this letter,” said Douglas Rooks, communications director.

He said that Gleason or Simpson may file a complaint with the House Speaker’s Office. The complaint would be reviewed and action could be taken against Shields if investigators found misconduct.


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