By Kevin Miller

Gov. Janet Mills signed legislation Wednesday that would allow terminally ill patients to obtain prescriptions for lethal doses of drugs, making Maine the latest state to legalize medication-assisted suicide.

Mills signed the bill -- called "death with dignity" by advocates -- into law after days of speculation about how the Democratic governor would handle the controversial social issue. While supporters said the law gives dying patients a choice in their final months, opponents equated the measure to state-sanctioned suicide and warned of potential abuse

But Mills also signed an executive order directing the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to begin emergency rulemaking and to closely track trends and practices as Mainers avail themselves of the law.

The bill, L.D. 1313, would allow terminally ill adults with less than six months of life expectancy to request a prescription for a lethal dose of medication. The individual would have to make the request verbally twice and once in writing as well as have the physical capability to take the medication on his or her own.

A physician would need to affirm that the patient is not suffering from depression or any other psychological impairment and is not being coerced by family members or others to take his or her life. Physicians would not be obligated to write prescriptions for lethal doses of drugs, but the bill would legally insulate doctors who do by creating an "affirmative defense" against charges of murder or assisting in suicide.

Speaking with reporters in her State House office, Mills acknowledged her own struggles as she sought to balance the interests of terminally ill patients and their families with the "moral dilemma" of a practice that opponents regard as state support for suicide. A former Maine attorney general, Mills said she considered both the personal testimonies of individuals on both sides of the debate as well as the legal issues surrounding the bill.

"It is my hope that this law, while respecting the right of personal liberty, will be using sparingly and that we will respect the life of every citizen with the utmost concern for their spiritual and physical well-being," Mills said before signing the bill into law and the executive order. "And that as a society that we will be as vigorous in providing full comfort, hospice and palliative care to all persons -- regardless of their status or financial ability -- as we are in respecting their right to make this ultimate decision over the own fate."

More than a half-dozen other states plus the District of Columbia allow some form of medication-assisted suicide.

The medication-assisted suicide bill -- sometimes also referred to by supporters as "medical aid in dying" -- has sparked some of the most emotional debate of the legislative session.

(c)2019 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)