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Maine's Death With Dignity Act

Find out what the requirements are for obtaining a prescription for life-ending medication under Maine’s law.

In 2019, the Maine legislature passed a death with dignity bill called the Death With Dignity Act. Governor Janet Mills signed the bill into law June 12, 2019. The law allows terminally ill patients to request aid in dying in certain clearly defined situations.

In 2020, the last year for which statistics are available, 50 people received a prescription under the act and 30 used it to die. (For additional statistics, see the 2020 Patient-Directed Care at End of Life Annual Report published by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.)

This article first clarifies some confusing language related to death with dignity laws and then sets out the basics of Maine's law.

Death With Dignity, Assisted Suicide, Right to Die: What's the Difference?

"Death with dignity" is one of the most commonly accepted phrases describing the process by which a terminally ill person ingests prescribed medication to hasten death. Many people still think of this process as "assisted suicide" or "physician assisted suicide." However, proponents of death with dignity argue that the term "suicide" doesn't apply to terminally ill people who would prefer to live but, facing certain death within months, choose a more gentle way of dying. In fact, Maine's law states that terminating one's life under the law is not suicide. (See Me. Rev. Stat. tit. 22, § 2140(20).)

Increasingly, health organizations are turning away from the term "suicide" to describe a terminally ill patient's choice to reduce the suffering of an inevitable death. The phrase "aid in dying" is becoming a more accepted way to refer to this process.

You may also see the phrase "right to die" used in place of "death with dignity." However, "right to die" is more accurately used in the context of directing one's own medical care—that is, refusing life-sustaining treatment such as a respirator or feeding tubes when permanently unconscious or close to death. You can provide your own health care directions by completing a Maine advance health care directive. (See the end of this article for more information.)

Death With Dignity Requirements in Maine

To request a prescription for life-ending medication in Maine, a patient must be:

  • at least 18 years old
  • a Maine resident
  • mentally capable of making and communicating health care decisions, and
  • diagnosed with a terminal disease that will result in death within six months.

A patient who meets the requirements above will be prescribed aid-in-dying medication only if:

  • The patient makes two verbal requests to their doctor, at least 15 days apart.
  • The patient gives a written request to the doctor, signed in front of two qualified, adult witnesses. (The law sets out the specific form that the patient must use.)
  • The prescribing doctor and one other doctor confirm the patient's diagnosis and prognosis.
  • The prescribing doctor determines that the patient is capable of making medical decisions.
  • The patient has a psychological examination, if the prescribing doctor feels the patient's judgment is impaired.
  • The prescribing doctor confirms that the patient is not being coerced or unduly influenced by others when making the request.
  • The prescribing doctor informs the patient of any feasible alternatives to the medication, including care to relieve pain and keep the patient comfortable.
  • The prescribing doctor asks the patient to notify their next of kin of the prescription request. (The doctor cannot require the patient to notify anyone, however.)
  • The prescribing doctor offers the patient the opportunity to withdraw the request for aid-in-dying medication before granting the prescription.

To use the medication, the patient must be able to ingest it on their own. A doctor or other person who administers the lethal medication may face criminal charges.

You can read the full text of Maine's Death With Dignity Act on the Maine legislature's website.

Learn More

To find out more about the history and current status of death with dignity laws in the United States, visit the website of the Death With Dignity National Center.

For information about appointing a health care agent and making known your own wishes for medical care at the end of life, see the Living Wills & Medical Powers of Attorney section of Nolo.com.

Updated January 31, 2022

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