'Death with dignity' bill extinguished without a vote

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Lawmakers pull plug on 'death with dignity' bill without a vote.

Hope ended Wednesday for those who wanted Maryland to pass a "death with dignity" law this year.

Leaders of two key committees considering a bill that would have allowed doctors to prescribe medicine to help terminally ill patients end their lives decided not to vote on the proposal, effectively killing it.

The move ends an emotional debate in the General Assembly — for now. House and Senate leaders plan to convene a work group that will present another proposal in January. That spares the legislature a complex floor debate in the waning days of the session this year.

"It's a good approach," Del. Shane Pendergrass, a Howard County Democrat who pushed the legislation. "These kinds of large issues take a certain amount of deliberating," she said. "They also require some time for people to think about this. We have a lot of freshmen who want to go back to their districts, that they're not used to representing, and see what they people think."

Key negotiators said it became clear that the proposal might have had enough votes to pass out of a joint House Committee, but it could spur a bruising debate on the floor. House leaders said they decided to forgo a vote rather than undertake a potentially losing one.

Opponents of the law celebrated its quiet death.

"We are absolutely delighted that the committees realized that this bill would not work for Marylanders," said Sam Crane, director of public policy for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and a member of the MD Coalition Against Physician Assisted Suicide.

Crane's group, religious organizations, mental health groups and disability advocates had argued that the bill would sanction death for people who relied on others to care for them and could put some the state's most vulnerable populations at risk.

The debate was laced with tearful testimony from lawmakers and citizens who said they had watched loved ones die painful and prolonged deaths and wanted an alternative.

Pendergrass, who is vice chair of the House and Governmental Operations Committee, compared the death-with-dignity effort to passing same-sex marriage in Maryland, an emotionally charged debate that unfolded over several years before legislators were ready to take a vote on it in 2012.

Maryland was among more than 15 states weighing right-to-die legislation this year, part of a nationwide movement sparked by the advocacy of 29-year-old brain tumor patient Brittany Maynard.

Maynard drew attention by chronicling the final months of her life. She ended it last fall under a right-to-die law in Oregon, one of only five states with such a policy.

The spate of legislation is a rapid reversal from 15 years ago, when states across the country banned physician-assisted suicide in response to the efforts of Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Maryland made the practice a felony in 1999.

The bill to overturn that law was named in honor of Richard E. Dick Israel, a prominent Annapolis politician who spent years dispensing legal advice to the legislature and is now in the final stages of Parkinson's disease.

The bill would have allowed patients with a terminal diagnosis and a prognosis of less than six months to obtain a prescription for a lethal dose of a drug. The patient would have been required to take the drug without assistance.

Israel's neurodegenerative disease makes it challenging for him to speak, but a representative said the decision to abandon legislation this year reflected the reality that such bills require years of work to pass.

"It's not easy, whether you're talking about legislation or at cocktail parties, to get people to talk about death," said Shane McGovern, a longtime friend. "There's a reason why some of us don't write wills or do advanced directives."

McGovern said the extra time can help lawmakers get their questions answered about the law, which she said would help its prospects.

"There needed to be more education about what this bill was and what this bill was not," she said. "This isn't Dr. Kevorkian. It's a long way away from a guy who shows up at your house with a machine and sticks a needle in his arm."

Former Ravens linebacker O.J. Brigance traveled to Annapolis this year to ask lawmakers to reject state-sanctioned death for people with terminal conditions.

Brigance, who was diagnosed in 2007 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — Lou Gehrig's disease — speaks through a machine. He told lawmakers that choosing to live with his degenerative condition has "done a greater good for society in eight years than my previous 37 years on earth."

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