Maine approves assisted suicide

We now have one more state where terminally ill patients can choose to end their own lives rather than continuing further medical care to stave off their demise. Maine has passed an assisted suicide law by the narrowest of margins in the legislature and the Governor has signed the bill. They now join California, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. (Associated Press)

Maine legalized medically assisted suicide on Wednesday, becoming the eighth state to allow terminally ill people to end their lives with prescribed medication.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, who had previously said she was unsure about the bill, signed it in her office.

“It is my hope that this law, while respecting the right to personal liberty, will be used sparingly,” said Mills.

Oregon was the first state to legalize such assistance, in 1997, and it took over a decade for the next state, Washington, to follow suit. While still controversial, assisted suicide legislation is winning increasing acceptance in the United States, and this year at least 18 states considered such measures.

Realizing that I’m still in the minority on this among conservatives, I can’t oppose this decision by Maine’s elected officials, particularly since they’ve addressed most of the objections normally raised in this debate. The new law will not allow for such an option for people who are depressed or otherwise healthy and able to continue living for a reasonable period of time. It will only be allowed for those suffering from a terminal illness and who have been judged by their doctor to have less than six months to live. A second doctor will have to provide a similar opinion. The patient must be screened for evidence of depression or anything else that might impair their judgment. They will also have to request the procedure three times, once in writing and twice verbally.

Laws regarding end-of-life choices remain complicated and controversial, but at least we’re having the discussion. It’s been nearly a decade since Dr. Ken Murray penned a shocking essay titled How Doctors Die, opening up a new phase of the conversation. And the reality is that this public debate isn’t shining a light on something new. It’s just removing part of the veil that surrounds such medical decisions. There are any number of people whose death certificates indicate that they died as a result of complications from some untreatable and debilitating disease. But in reality, many of them had some “help” at the end from an understanding and sympathetic doctor.

If you truly believe that free people have a right to control their own destiny, that should include not only how they walk through this world, but how they exit it. When all reasonable hope is lost, the choice of months of excruciating pain or reclining in a nearly comatose condition while running up massive medical bills isn’t for everyone. Sometimes palliative care (at home if possible) and a dignified farewell before the pain becomes unbearable is the better option for some.

This is a painful and difficult subject for many people. It is depressing to hear the young and healthy scolding such patients, calling them cowards or demanding that only God be allowed the final say. Perhaps they will feel differently with six or seven decades under their belts. And if not, nobody is trying to force you to make such a choice. They only want you to have the option.