A year before my father died at age 85, he visited us at our home in Prospect Harbor. We were sitting quietly on our deck looking out over the water when he suddenly said, “If I ever get to a point where my mind is going, and I am here with you, just tell me to dive in the water and swim out to that island.”

Less than a year later, he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. At 84 years old, he had stood almost 6 feet tall, weighed 230 pounds and still had the arm and leg muscles of the college football lineman he had been at Ohio University in the late 1930s. But over the course of the next six months, his height shrank to 5-foot-8 and he lost 80 pounds; he did not have the strength to walk to the bathroom; and his mind collapsed under the pressure of the growing brain tumor.

All this happened in Indiana, with no ocean nearby, and my father lacking the faculties to understand a simple declarative statement, let alone instructions on committing suicide.

The death of a loved one is personal and painful for survivors because, as in my father’s case, we are there to witness the dying one’s suffering and are helpless legally to ease their way into a dignified death. Hospice care may help in the final months of life, especially if you are fortunate to have a sympathetic caregiver who quietly provides the opiates to speed along the inevitable. But that does not always happen.

The states of Washington, Oregon, Vermont and, most recently, California have enacted legislation that grants physicians the legal right to assist the suicides of terminally ill patients.

Canada appears to be on the verge of adopting such legislation, spurred by a ruling by that nation’s supreme court that Canadians have a constitutional right to doctor-assisted suicide in certain circumstances. Now the new Liberal Party government of Justin Trudeau has endorsed this ruling, and legislation should soon be enacted.

The Canadian law, once enacted, will not permit “suicide tourism” for terminally ill Mainers or any other nonresident, unlike Switzerland, which does, though at considerable expense to the dying individual.

Canada’s legislation requires a written request by either the dying person or by a designated representative, which must be evaluated by two physicians. If they agree, the law mandates a 15-day waiting period and allows physicians to follow their conscience by opting out of the process.

Oregon’s “Death with Dignity” legislation has been in place for nearly two decades; a 2014 state report shows that of the 1,327 fatally ill Oregonians who requested prescriptions to end their lives since the law was implemented, only 859 followed through. In the case of Vermont’s equivalent law, enacted just three years ago, only two people have availed themselves.

The Maine Democratic Party’s 2014 platform — the most recent one — includes a plank that “supports the right to informed choice in end-of-life care.” That is a less explicit version of its platform plank of 2010, which forthrightly supported physician-assisted suicide, but the intent remains the same. In either case, it is a statement favoring the individual’s freedom to deal in an intelligent manner with the last choice they will have to make in their lives.

The Maine Republican Party, however, states in its 2014 party platform that the party believes “in the sanctity of human life — from conception to natural death.” Of course, in the same platform the party defines marriage as “a union of one man and one woman.”

The Maine Republican Party notwithstanding, physician-assisted suicide, like marriage equality, recognizes that greater personal freedom is a good unto itself, as long as one person’s freedom does not negate another’s.

Had my father lived in Oregon or Washington state 10 years ago, he would have been spared much of the torment he had to endure over the last six months of his life, and his children today would not still be discussing how helpless we felt then in carrying out his wishes for a dignified death.

Maine was a national leader in expanding the freedom to marry whomever one loves. Should we not also join the few other states leading the way by legalizing physician-assisted suicide for the sake of the dignity of those we love?

Roger Bowen; of Prospect Harbor, a 69-year-old father of two who’s been married almost 48 years, is healthy but tends to worry about the future.


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