Maine Voters to Consider Assisted Suicide
Following the example of Oregon, the only state that sanctions assisted suicide, Maine residents will decide on Nov. 7 the fate of Question 1, a ballot initiative that would allow doctors to prescribe lethal dosages of drugs to terminally ill patients -- a controversial issue that has "wrinkled brows" throughout the New England state (Broder, Washington Post, 10/17). Opponents, including the group Maine Citizens Against the Dangers of Physician-Assisted Suicide, argue that the measure does not require a doctor to preside over the patient's death and would allow patients to receive "home delivery" of fatal prescriptions. However, according to backers, such as Mainers for Death with Dignity, the initiative includes safeguards against abuse and prevents patients from committing suicide "impulsively" (Adams, AP/Nando Times, 10/15). Darlene Glover, a Maine nurse, proposed Question 1 to fulfill a promise to her dying father "to help other terminally ill patients end their suffering." After the state Legislature "[r]ebuffed" her efforts, she moved forward with the ballot measure, helping to found the "death with dignity" campaign. The measure has stirred an "emotional debate" in Maine, pitting doctors against social workers. Many of the state's physicians, nurses, hospitals and hospices oppose Question 1, and the Catholic diocese in Portland has also expressed its objections to the assisted suicide initiative (Washington Post, 10/17). Maine Gov. Angus King (I), who opposes the ballot measure, has warned that the proposed law could "nudge" the state down a "slippery slope" (AP/Nando Times, 10/15). King said, however, "I have no idea how [the vote] is going to come out" (Washington Post, 10/17). According to a poll conducted by Strategic Marketing Services of Portland in September, two-thirds of likely voters back Question 1, 21% oppose the measure, and 12% remain undecided (AP/Nando Times, 10/15). The debate has attracted a "broad spectrum" of national groups who have funneled hundreds of thousands of outside dollars into the state, with backers raising more than $1 million and opponents raking in about $840,000, the Maine Ethics Commission reports (Adams, AP/Portland Press- Herald, 10/11). In addition, the issue has prompted a flurry of "emotion-laden" ads from both sides. One ad, sponsored by Mainers for Death with Dignity, features Glover asking voters to "give the terminally ill a choice my father never had ... to live every minute of their lives with dignity." On the other side, the Portland diocese has distributed videos and pamphlets calling the measure "death disguised as dignity ... filled with loopholes ... fatally flawed" (Washington Post, 10/17). Dial 911 for Confusion Another "widely aired" advertisement credited with dissuading voters from supporting Question 1 made a questionable "allegation" that "lacks factual support" and has spurred criticism from backers of the measure (Moore, Bangor Daily News, 10/26). The ad highlights an alleged case in Oregon where a patient attempting to end his life suffered "severe complications" from barbiturates, prompting his wife to call 911 (Cain, Associated Press, 10/27). In the ad, sponsored by Maine Citizens Against the Dangers of Physician-Assisted Suicide, hospital staff members wheel a patient into a room of gowned and masked doctors, while former American Medical Association President and Oregon physician Dr. Thomas Reardon states: "After taking this medication some patients in Oregon had complications so disturbing that family members had to call 911" (Bangor Daily News, 10/26). He also urges Maine voters not to "make the same mistake we made" (Associated Press, 10/27). However, Maine Citizens Against the Dangers of Physician-Assisted Suicide has "no 911 tapes or transcripts to back up the claim" and instead relies on an "anecdotal case" that appeared in a Portland Oregonian editorial to justify the ad. According to the group, the Oregonian editorial "met its criteria" for an ad, and Maine's television stations have rejected requests from Question 1 supporters to pull the spot, which they called "false and misleading." John Speh, a terminally ill cancer patient who backs Question 1, asked, "Who are these people to be so cavalier with the truth? Who are these people to be so careless with the rights of sick people and their families?" Calling the ad "truthful," Gordon Smith, executive director of the Maine Medical Association, part of the Maine Citizens Against the Dangers of Physician-Assisted Suicide, said, "I stand by the ad" (Bangor Daily News, 10/26). OK in Oregon Backers of Question 1 have enlisted Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D), a former emergency room doctor, in an ad to "blunt" opponents' charges of "botched" suicides in Oregon. Kitzhaber states in the ad: "I'm taking the time to set the record straight about Oregon's law. And here's the truth: It's working well." Kate Roberts of Mainers for Death with Dignity said, "As a doctor and governor, he has so much credibility. We feel privileged to have someone of Gov. Kitzhaber's stature come out and explain the Oregon experience." While opponents of assisted suicide have argued that the procedure could lead to cases of "seizures, vomiting or prolonged suffering" because of drugs that "failed to work as intended," Dr. Grant Higginson of the Oregon Health Division said that the agency has received "no reports" of assisted suicide complications or "any information" about the alleged 911 case in the Maine ad (Associated Press, 10/27). Final Word from Nickles? Although Maine residents will decide Question 1 on Nov. 7, Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles (R-Okla.) may have the final word. The Oklahoma senator attached an amendment, the "Pain Relief Promotion Act," which would effectively overturn Oregon's -- and potentially Maine's -- assisted suicide law, to a tax bill currently under consideration in the Congress. While the House passed the bill last Thursday 237-174, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has vowed to filibuster the legislation (American Health Line, 10/27). Wyden has already twice "thwarted" Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's (R-Miss.) plans to move ahead with the larger tax bill, and has "refused to agree" to a debate time limit (Seattle Times, 10/30). Lott said Tuesday that he will seek cloture to "head off" Wyden and move ahead with the legislation (CongressDaily/A.M., 11/1). While President Clinton has made "no commitment" to veto the measure, he expressed concerns that the provision would "have a chilling effect on doctors writing medication for pain relief on terminally ill patients" (Hughes, Associated Press, 10/30). Nickles disputed the comments, calling them a "false argument" against his assisted suicide bill (CongressDaily/A.M., 11/1).This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.