By Daniel Menefee
For Maryland Reporter
After two years of dead ends, Maryland lawmakers have again introduced measures to give terminally ill Marylanders the right to die using doctor prescribed medications.
The nation’s oldest end-of-life advocacy group, Compassion & Choices, brought nearly 200 supporters to Annapolis on Wednesday to urge lawmakers to pass the “Richard E. Israel and Roger ‘Pip’ Moyer End of Life Options Act.”
“As a physician I’ve always seen my vocation as an obligation to work with my patients as honestly and professionally as I can, respecting their sense of autonomy, their values and their priorities in order to use my skills to support them throughout their life,” Del. Terri Hill, M.D., a Columbia Democrat and physician, told the crowd of supporters and fellow lawmakers. “When that support is to cure or mediate, that’s terrific, but my obligation to support them and respect them doesn’t end when I run out of options.”
“Support for this legislation is about completing that contract,” said Hill.
The legislation would allow a terminally ill adult patient, who is not mentally ill, to end his or her life using doctor prescribed medications.
Sponsors mostly Democrats
The Senate Bill, SB354, sponsored by Sen. Guy Guzzone, D-Howard, has 14 co-sponsors, all Democrats. The House version, HB370, sponsored again by Del. Shane Pendergrass, has 44 co-sponsors, only one a Republican, Delegate Chris West, R-Baltimore County.
This is the third year in a row Pendergrass has sponsored the legislation, and she now chairs the House Health and Government Operations Committee that will hear it again.
A Senate version last year received an unfavorable report from the Judicial Proceedings Committee and was withdrawn by the sponsor, Sen. Ron Young, D-Frederick.
The House committee never took a vote on the measure after the Senate panel killed the bill.
In 2015 House and Senate versions also failed to clear their committees.
Tough issue to talk about
“It’s a tough issue,” Guzzone said. “We have a hard time in this country talking about death and dying and we have to have that conversation, it’s critically important.”
As the rally wound down a Rockville resident spoke passionately in support of the legislation as it will ultimately affect her and her son — and could have made her father’s death more dignified.
“I love life. I love being a parent to my 17-year-old son and working toward becoming a minister, a journey I started several years ago,” said Rockville resident Alexa Fraser, who was diagnosed in December with a rare and aggressive form of cancer.
“I just want the ability to choose a peaceful death with my family around me rather than one filled with pain, or drowning in my bodily fluids, or with my abdomen bursting as happened to a good friend who…died of abdominal cancer,” said Fraser.
She said her father killed himself as a result of dealing with Parkinson’s, but it took three attempts before he succeeded.
“It didn’t go well,” she said. “First he tried pills, then cutting his wrists, neither worked, and finally he used a gun.”
In a “deep twist of fate” Fraser said her son was recently diagnosed with MS.
“If, when he is old and sick…and concludes that using the death with dignity provision is his choice, I would support that for him,” she said.
There is greater optimism this year for passage said Sean Crowley, director of media relations for Compassion & Choices.
“Naturally when you have a new issue legislators are unfamiliar with it and it takes time,” he said. He said recent polling data in Maryland and the nation show significant support for end-of-life choice.
“Sixty-five percent of Maryland voters support medical aid in dying and 60% of physicians either support it or are neutral on the issue,” Crowley said. “It’s a strong majority in both cases.”
Crowley said Gov. Larry Hogan was initially opposed to it but has signaled he is now more open to it.
Opposition gearing up
The Maryland Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of the Catholic bishops, is gearing up to oppose the legislation, as are groups representing people with disabilities, part of a coalition called Maryland Against Physician Assisted Suicide.
“It’s critical that we protect people with intellectual and developmental disabilities from this dangerous legislation,” said Lori Scott, board member of The Arc Maryland. “One of the top reasons people want to end their lives is to avoid being a burden to loved ones. Sadly, people with disabilities often feel they are a burden throughout their entire life.”
“People with intellectual and developmental disabilities are frequently coerced into making decisions that are not in their best interest because they are led to believe it will please a health care provider or family member,” Scott said. “It is impossible to legislate the safeguards needed to protect these individuals from the dangers of physician-assisted suicide.”
Dan Menefee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org