Maine could become the sixth state to allow a dying patient to be prescribed a lethal drug if a measure expected to come up for a vote in the Legislature this week passes and is signed by the governor.

Maine’s law on end-of-life options would be similar to laws in Oregon, Washington and Vermont. In New Mexico and Montana, court cases have found that terminally ill patients have a right to obtain help in dying.

But the Maine bill faces an uphill battle because the Legislature rejected a similar proposal two years ago and voters turned down a right-to-die proposal in a referendum in 2000.

Under the bill, sponsored by Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, a patient considered to be about six months from death could tell a doctor he or she wants a prescription for a lethal dose of a drug, most likely barbiturates. The patient would have to reiterate the request 15 days later, be judged competent to make the decision and get a second opinion on the medical diagnosis. As a safeguard against undue influence, the patient would have to put the wishes in writing and sign them before at least two disinterested witnesses.

The bill is expected to come up in the Legislature this week, possibly as early as Monday, although the ongoing negotiations over a budget mean that the schedule for the last week of the session is uncertain.

Katz said several factors led him to propose the bill, including the story of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old California woman who, after she was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, moved to Oregon to take advantage of that state’s law allowing doctors to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to allow patients to end their lives. She took the drugs and died in November.

Katz said his parents’ deaths also affected his views, although he declined to give details other than to say that they died in hospices.

“We all really cherish the right we have to control our own lives and choose our own medical care, to choose not to be treated if we don’t want to and that same autonomy ought to extend to end-of-life decisions, as well,” Katz said.

Katz declined to predict how the vote will go, although he noted that national polls show support for right-to-die legislation. The vote, he said, “will be a very personal decision for 186 people,” he said.

Katz said his bill would allow doctors, nurses, hospice workers, pharmacists and others not to participate if they believe helping a patient die is immoral.

“It requires a willing patient and a willing doctor,” he said.

Katz said studies in states where doctor-assisted death is legal indicate that only about half of those who get a prescription for a lethal drug dose actually take it. The studies said that suggests that having the option for patients to end their life is a comfort for the terminally ill patient, whether it’s exercised or not.

One of the advocates for the bill at an April public hearing in Augusta was Valerie Lovelace, who runs a Wiscasset-based organization called “It’s My Death.”

“It’s an option to have a peaceful death rather than go through what dying people sometimes have to go through,” said Lovelace, who researched doctor-assisted death laws while pursuing her master’s degree at Husson University. “If the going gets really rough, that could be your choice, legally and safely. ”

Opposing the bill is the Maine Medical Association, largely because helping someone die runs counter to a doctor’s code of ethics, said Gordon Smith, the organization’s executive vice president. However, Smith said he doesn’t know of any state medical associations that punish doctors who participate in physician-assisted deaths and the MMA would be unlikely to if the bill passes.

“The bills are very popular because everybody has had a bad experience with a death,” he said.

In addition to the law running counter to a doctor’s code, he said, the MMA is also concerned that right-to-die could become “duty-to-die” if a terminally ill patient tries to spare his family the expenses of end-of-life care.

Smith said the MMA regularly surveys its members to see if there is a change of heart on right-to-die laws. In the most recent survey on the subject, conducted about a year ago, he said, about 60 percent of those surveyed said they thought the MMA should re-examine its stance on such laws, although Smith noted they weren’t asked if they actually wanted the association to change its view.

Katz noted that in California, where lawmakers are considering a bill similar to Oregon’s, the state medical association recently dropped its opposition and is now neutral on the proposal.

Another advocate for Katz’s bill is Sarah Witte, a Yarmouth woman whose 27-year-son died of brain cancer in 2010.

Witte said she isn’t sure if her son would have chosen to have a doctor help him die had that option been available to him. She also said that the illness advanced quickly in her son, Andrew, and he might not have been able to make a competent decision.

But Witte said she believes that having the option to seek help in dying and to choose the time would have comforted her son.

“He was very frightened as a 26-, 27-year-old facing his own end,” she said. “It would have been peace of mind for him.”

 

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