Maine: Battle Against Assisted Suicide Heightens

PORTLAND, Maine -- Advocates of an assisted suicide bill plan to take their case directly to the people, a strategy designed to circumvent lawmakers who have consistently rejected the measure.

Supporters will gather signatures at polling places this November in hopes of putting the measure on the ballot in 1999 or 2000, said Susan Shell, coordinator of the PRO 916 campaign, which takes its name from the legislation sponsored by state Rep. Joseph Brooks.

"We haven't decided for sure which year," she said July 22.

A spokesman for Maine's Roman Catholic diocese said plans for the initiative came as no surprise and that the church will vigorously oppose a ballot question to legalize assisted suicide.

The Maine bill, modeled on the statute approved by Oregon voters, would allow terminally ill patients to request a prescription for medication to commit suicide. A 15-day waiting period is required between a patient's first request for the drugs and the time the pills can be obtained from a pharmacist.

Before a prescription can be written, two doctors have to determine the patient has less than six months to live. The patient also must be mentally competent and not depressed.

To force a referendum on the proposal, PRO 916 must collect voter signatures amounting to 10 percent of the total vote cast in the November race for governor. The legislature has the option of enacting initiated bills but traditionally chooses to leave the decision to voters.

Assisted suicide was rejected by voters in Washington and California. Voters in Oregon supported it twice, once by a narrow margin and the second time by a margin of roughly 3-2.

Shell said her group anticipates that the campaign in Maine will generate plenty of interest.

Marc Mutty, spokesman for the Diocese of Portland, said the church will oppose the measure through its participation in the Coalition for Compassionate Care of the Dying, made up of more than 100 organizations and individuals, many of them physicians.

"I see us playing a very aggressive role in opposition to this," Mutty said. "We're looking particularly at doing as much education as we can among the populace about the implications of this kind of legislation, and at the alternatives."

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