Doctor-Assisted Suicide Bill Dies in Maryland

by | March 4, 2016

By Pamela Wood

A chief sponsor of legislation that would allow terminally ill Marylanders to end their lives has withdrawn the bill amid stiff opposition, signaling that the effort has again failed in the General Assembly.

Sen. Ronald Young, a Frederick County Democrat, withdrew the bill Thursday after realizing it didn't have enough support to clear the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

"I'm very disappointed," Young said. "People are imposing their values on other people."

Under the bill, patients could be prescribed drugs that would cause their death. First, they would have to consult with a doctor multiple times -- once in private -- to discuss their prognosis. The doctor would have to determine that a patient has less than six months to live, is capable of making sound judgments and can administer the medication on their own.

Similar legislation drew special attention in Annapolis last year when Richard "Dick" Israel, a former legal adviser to the legislature and alderman on the Annapolis city council, emerged as a staunch supporter. Known for his sharp wit and old-fashioned mannerisms, Israel advocated for the legislation from his hospice bed while suffering from Parkinson's disease.

Lawmakers named the bill for Israel and former Annapolis Mayor Roger "Pip" Moyer, who also suffered from Parkinson's. While committees held hearings last year, they did not vote on the legislation. Israel, 72, died three months after the legislative session ended. Moyer, 80, died as last year's session was getting underway.

Committees in the House of Delegates have not voted on similar legislation this year, but the withdrawal of the Senate bill all but dooms the legislative effort. Young said only two lawmakers on the Senate committee had committed to vote for the bill, and he doubted he would be able to convince four more lawmakers to support it, which would be needed to send the bill to the full Senate.

"The committee wasn't going to let it out, Young said, adding that he wasn't sure he would sponsor the bill again next year.

"I seriously doubt it because the makeup of the committee is not going to change," he said, "and they're just totally inflexible on it."

Del. Shane Pendergrass, a Howard County Democrat who is the lead sponsor of the House bill, said she was "startled" to learn the Senate bill had been withdrawn but that she would continue to push for her version now and, if necessary, next year.

While supporters say the bill would allow people who are suffering to end their lives peacefully and without pain, opponents worry that some could be coerced or manipulated. Others are opposed to the bill on religious or moral grounds.

Sen. Jim Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat on the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he generally supports the idea behind the bill, but said it had too many flaws.

"I think, conceptually, it's what my constituents want, and it makes sense when someone clearly had no chance of recovery," he said.

But Brochin said it's challenging to ask doctors to be certain that a patient will only live for six months. He's also worried about the possibility of coercion from beneficiaries to the patient's estate. Brochin said Young was unwilling to compromise on details of the bill to address those concerns.

Young said proposed changes to the bill were "garbage" suggestions from people who were fundamentally opposed.

The debate in Maryland over medical aid in dying has mirrored a national discussion on the issue in recent years.

The issue was highlighted by Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman who went public in 2014 with her choice to move from California to Oregon, where she could legally end her life. She had terminal brain cancer and died Nov. 1, 2014.

Maynard's story "transformed this movement," said Kim Callinan, chief program officer for Compassion & Choices, an advocacy group that is trying to legalize the practice of allowing terminally ill patients to take lethal drugs across the country.

"People related to her. She was young and just told a powerful story of wanting an option and wanting peace of mind, and she connected with people," said Callinan, who lives in Montgomery County. "She's really changed the face of the issue."

The practice is legal in four states -- Vermont, Montana, Washington and Oregon -- and California's law will take effect later this year.

A Gallup Poll last year found that 68 percent of respondents in a national survey support allowing doctors to assist terminally ill patients who want to commit suicide. That was a 17 percentage point increase from two years earlier, according to Gallup.

A Goucher College poll last year found that 60 percent of Marylanders supported allowing terminally ill patients to obtain life-ending drugs. Thirty-five percent of respondents were opposed.

Supporters of Maryland legislation say lawmakers need to catch up with where their constituents are on the issue.

"It's hard for me to understand why it isn't easier, frankly," Pendergrass said of the difficulties in building legislative support.

Lawmakers in Annapolis heard hours of passionate and sometimes heart-wrenching testimony from both sides of the issue during hearings last month. People with serious illnesses begged for the ability to end their life on their own terms, while others told stories of patients who lived for years after receiving diagnoses of only a few months to live.

Opponents say support for such measures is not as strong as it might seem.

When people learn more details about the legislation -- such as how drugs are obtained and how they work -- some advocates waver, said Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, the Catholic church's lobbying arm in Annapolis.

The conference and advocacy groups for people with disabilities worked together to oppose the bill. Their chief concern was a lack of protections to prevent vulnerable patients from being convinced to end their lives prematurely.

"This is a bill that's involving the medical community in providing someone the means to take their own life," Russell said. "That's a grave concern to so many people, because that opens up the door for so many possibilities for abuse."

Patients who feel like they are a burden on their families or who face expensive medical treatments may be convinced to end their lives, Russell said. Opponents also are concerned that people with disabilities could be pushed to make a drastic choice because their lives "aren't seen as valuable" as those without disabilities.

Doctors and psychiatrists testified on both sides of the debate.

Russell expects the bill to return next year and will continue to lobby against it.

"We're one of many partners in the coalition who will continue to become increasingly galvanized in opposing this legislation," she said.

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