Stories and tears at the 'death with dignity' hearing
It was truly an honor to sit at the hearing in Augusta on the upcoming death with dignity bills. Similar bills, pioneered by Oregon almost 20 years ago, are now becoming law, state by state, as public opinion slowly changes. Sitting there, as the hours passed, on a seat in the “overflow" room, hearing so many end-of-life stories, often weeping in the charged and tender atmosphere— it was hard not to be convinced that allowing more choice in terminal end-of-life situations is a compassionate act, which no government should overly regulate.
The issue was not an idle one for me. As my mother neared her 100th birthday, she asked me to find for her a “peaceful pill." I doubted that my 4-wheel-drive mother — who golfed into her 90s — would ever take it; but I knew it would give her peace of mind to know it was in her drawer. Exploring the idea however, I soon was unwilling to brave prosecution for this illegal act. Nor did it seem wise to brave the feud which two of my five siblings promised me, if I obeyed my mother's wish. Six months later, my mother became incontinent, refused food and drink, and died peacefully 10 days later.
Some might say she was arrogant, shortening the Maker’s invisible and sacred timetable. I only know what it felt like to sit at her bedside, loving her, loving all her qualities, and therefore loving her choices, her definition of dignity, her essential autonomy. My mother: an impatient, opinionated, strong-willed extrovert. Who would direct the final act of her movie? Should my religious sisters do it, using their interpretation of a religion my mother was only lukewarm about? Should doctors and technology, who had already dominated many previous choices, continue to hold sway? No! I smile to remember that, denied alternatives, and in spite of galloping infirmities, by stubbornly refusing nourishment my mother had reclaimed her drama’s final act.
With these memories still so fresh, I was keen to learn more about this issue. I learned that sometimes all the best hospice care--the best doctoring and pain control — cannot control extreme pain in some end-of-life situations. I heard the testimony of a hospice nurse who originally opposed Oregon’s bill. She felt that giving a terminal patient this choice was a discount to all the wonderful care offered by hospice. But then she experienced other situations where basic human compassion — what any caring person would naturally extend to another — required re-crafting government restraints. When it came up again, she voted for the Oregon law.
It was striking to hear the difference in tone between those supporting or opposing the bill. The supporters spoke deeply, coming from powerful personal experience. Almost all told stories. The opponents — and I could be biased here—seemed to speak airily about far-off ideas; even, as I cynically wondered, reading scripts handed to them by out-of-state pressure groups.
I learned the specifics of this well-crafted bill, which is based on Oregon’s 20-year experience. There, none of the feared side-effects of this legislation have come to pass. The “slippery slope” toward death squads and elder abuse hasn’t happened. The “peaceful pill” is rarely taken in dying situations (less than 0.2 percent) but having that option reduces fear for countless people. In Maine, the details go approximately like this: If someone is an adult, a resident of the state, is competent to understand, and has a 6 month or less prognosis for living; they may ask their doctor for a lethal pill. They need to ask again at least 2 weeks later, and then ask a third time in writing. The doctor, who is not required to comply, must then go through many complicated safeguards before writing the prescription. The law states that patient’s life insurance cannot be denied. The doctor cannot be prosecuted. Hospice care can be continued. If the patient is in an institution, it can refuse to host the pill-taking. At all points, any “interested” party is excluded from decision-making. And finally, the taking of the pill must be the patient’s own act.
I came home in that humbled, thoughtful mood, when you’ve encountered life’s deeper moments. I was proud that Maine — in keeping with her well-established hutzpa — was possibly joining other reflective states in fine-tuning their legislation about this deeply personal final decision.
Jory Squibb lives in Camden.