A divisive national debate over whether dying patients should have the power to end their own lives will sweep into Maine this week when the Republican-controlled state Senate begins to consider so-called "death-with-dignity" legislation.
Sen. Roger Katz's bill, which the Republican from Augusta says the Senate could take up as early as Monday, is modeled after legislation passed in Vermont two years ago that allows physicians to provide lethal doses of medication to terminally ill patients who want to hasten their death. Katz and other supporters say those who are suffering should be free to end their lives on their terms.
"Why not have the right to say, 'I want to go, I've had it'?" said 85-year-old June Wagner, whose daughter died in 2012 at the age of 54 after suffering from ovarian cancer. Her daughter lived in Washington state, which has such a law, and obtained a prescription to end her own life, but Wagner said she doesn't know if she ultimately used it.
Maine would become the sixth state in the country with such a law if Katz's bill passes this year, but it faces an uphill battle. Lawmakers here have repeatedly rejected similar measures and voters defeated a ballot referendum on the issue in 2000.
It has been met with fierce opposition from some religious and medical groups, including the Maine Medical Association and the American Nurses Association of Maine, who say lawmakers should focus instead on ensuring that all residents have access to proper health care that can make them comfortable in the final months of their lives. Others say they fear patients will feel the need to end their own life because they believe they're a burden on their families.
Suzanne Lafreniere, director of the office of public policy for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland told lawmakers earlier this year that a person's life must be protected "at every stage and in every condition."
"A law permitting assisted suicide would demean the lives of vulnerable patients and expose them to exploitation by those who feel they are better off dead," she said in her written testimony.
Brittany Maynard thrust the issue back into the national spotlight last year she ended her own life just before her 30th birthday in Oregon, the first state to legalize the practice. Maynard, who was dying of brain cancer, advocated for aid-in-dying laws in videos shared widely online.
Kandyce Powell, who opposes the bill and is executive director of the Maine Hospice Council, said she believes the proposal wouldn't resurface so frequently if more people in Maine had proper access to end-of-life care.
Vast rural parts of the state lack hospice or palliative care that can ease a person's suffering in the final stages of their life, Dr. James VanKirk, medical director of palliative care services at Eastern Maine Medical Center.
"I am not against people having choice. That's what we're all about in this country," VanKirk said. "But I think if we're going to give people this kind of choice ... we need to make sure that they really have a choice. We need to make sure that they don't feel like they are in a situation where there is only one option."
Katz agreed that expanding access to health care is crucial, but palliative care may not make things bearable for everyone, he said. He stressed that his proposal includes many safeguards, including requirements that a second doctor has confirmed that the patient has a limited time to live.
He's hopeful that the national discussion and the increased awareness of the issue over the last year will help propel his bill into law — if not this year, sometime soon.
"There are some people who have religious objections or other moral objections and I respect that," Katz said. "But I think that most people have an open mind and are waiting to hear the debate."