The death with dignity/right-to-die movement has come of age. It is timely, important and merits discussion and debate on both sides.

After the much-publicized death of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman suffering from terminal brain cancer who ended her life on her own terms, many groups and individuals have come together and rallied to make end-of-life issues relevant. It has struck a chord.

A few months ago, only three states had enacted legislation allowing doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs to the terminally ill — Oregon (where Brittany Maynard moved in order to end her life), Vermont and Washington state. (In two other states, Montana and New Mexico, aid-in-dying practices are protected by court rulings.)

A few weeks ago, right-to-die legislation had been drafted in 19 states. This number has now risen to 26 and is growing.

Though the wording varies by state, both these laws and the proposed measures allow terminal patients the option to die in their own way and at their own choosing. Good palliative care and the aid-in-dying option can certainly work to complement each other, but the final decision to make well-thought-out plans to enable end-of-life wishes rests only with the person facing death. There is no reason why anyone else — the government, the medical profession, family, friends — should have the final say in how a terminally ill person chooses to end his or her life.

Simply stated, enacted and proposed laws give this choice to competent, terminally ill people who are state residents and at least 18 years old. They must state, both in writing and verbally, that this is their wish, and their wish only.

The written request for medication must be witnessed by two persons. There is a waiting period before the prescription can be filled. Patients must be physically able to administer the drugs themselves. So there must be a release from civil or criminal penalties for those physicians who choose to honor a terminal patient’s right to choose the time of their own deaths.

Valuable and comprehensive resources exist on death, dying and related issues. A few months ago I attended a five-session, once-a-week adult education class in Brunswick about the assisted-dying debate.

The instructor, Valerie Lovelace, was well-versed and engaging, making us able to face end-of-life issues through informative and thought-provoking readings and discussions. It was important for us (hospice volunteers, retirees, medical professionals and others) to recognize our own and others’ biases, our emotional triggers and what “slippery slopes” might exist. This course will be given again in March (contact Merrymeeting Adult Education at 729-7323).

The following websites also provide information and food for thought:

• On Our Own Terms: Solutions for finding a better death and humane care for the dying, created by Bill Moyers (

• National Institutes of Health: Decisions about end-of-life care (

• My End-of-Life Matters: Health care proxies, living wills, do-not-resuscitate orders and other end-of-life issues (

• The Conversation Project: Helping people talk about their wishes for end-of-life care, created by Ellen Goodman (

• Compassion & Choices: A nationwide nonprofit committed to helping people have the best death possible by offering free counseling, planning resources, expanding options at the end of life, with referrals and guidance (

• It’s My Death: A Maine-based charitable organization dedicated to helping people accept death and dying, through guided interviews, facilitated workshops and discussion groups (

Death-with-dignity legislation is being drafted in Maine (drafts have been initiated by three of our representatives and one state senator). I urge all residents of Maine to contact their senators and representatives to voice their support at this critical time.

Our basic humanity dictates that opposition to offering terminally ill adults the option to die in their own way runs counter to our given human rights of determination, free will and self-reliance. The Hippocratic Oath states “do no harm.” Does “doing no harm” give the medical profession the right to extend a life that has become difficult, painful and often unbearable? It seems to me that the focus of those in the medical profession is to improve whatever quality of life is left and to do their best to eliminate suffering before it becomes unendurable.

Opponents counter with the “slippery slope” arguments, all thus far proven groundless. And no matter what religious beliefs are held by any of us, they should never be used to deny anyone the choice for an informed death with dignity. Our basic humanity and true compassion for those who are dying should lead us to allow them the decision about how their lives will end.

Nan March is a resident of Brunswick and a founder in 1980 of Bath-Brunswick Hospice, now known as Hospice Volunteers of Maine.

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