Gov. Janet Mills Credit: Troy R. Bennett

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Janet Mills signed a bill on Wednesday to make Maine the ninth state to allow doctors to prescribe life-ending medication to terminally ill patients, calling it the hardest decision she has made as governor and forestalling a planned referendum.

The bill from Rep. Patty Hymanson, D-York, the co-chair of the Legislature’s health committee, just barely cleared the Democratic-led chambers earlier this month, winning a 73-72 vote in the House of Representatives and a 19-16 vote in the Senate. They divided across party lines.

Only two legislative Republicans voted for the bill amid heavy opposition from social conservatives, while 17 Democrats broke ranks with most of their party to oppose it. Assistant House Majority Leader Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, a Catholic who had opposed the bill, ended up casting a deciding vote for it last week.

Mills’ position on the bill was largely a mystery before a Wednesday news conference, where she gave a lengthy analysis of arguments for and against the bill before signing it and added she hopes it will be “used sparingly.” She said “yes” when asked if it was the hardest decision she has made in office.

“I have my own personal experiences, but more importantly, my decision was the result of weighing the pros and cons and experiences of many other people in the state of Maine, their desires and concerns,” she told reporters.

Mills also signed it along with an executive order to allow emergency rulemaking and outline expectations for data collection under the law by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. Lawmakers would have to approve them — likely in 2020 — before the program begins.

The referendum push was slated for 2020 and largely funded by the Death with Dignity National Center, an Oregon group that pushed the first-in-the-nation law passed there in 1997. More than three-quarters of people who used the program to die there between 1998 to 2015 had cancer, according to a review in the American Medical Association’s journal.

In a statement, Valerie Lovelace, who chaired the referendum effort, called it “an exceptionally historic day for Maine,” calling the law “an important step” toward providing Mainers residents with autonomy and freedom “that has been a godsend to dying patients in other states.”

The bill will allow people with terminal illnesses to receive life-ending medication from a doctor after waiting period and the acceptance of written and oral requests after a screening for mental health conditions and a second opinion. Forging or coercing requests would be a felony.

Mainers rejected a similar measure narrowly in 2000, and it has been the subject of seven legislative pushes since 1992, although a 2017 survey from advocates showed 73 percent support for the law in the state.

It was opposed in Maine by socially conservative groups including the Christian Civic League of Maine, which has argued that protections in the bill are insufficient, that it would forever alter doctor-patient relationships and that policy should account for palliative care advances.

The league’s director, Carroll Conley, said in a statement that Mills “seemed conflicted” during her statement on the bill and that she should have been, citing the American Medical Association’s stance against similar laws.

“No state or country has ever been able to create rules to prevent abuse to the elderly and the disabled,” he said.

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Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...