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O.J. Brigance to testify against right-to-die bill

The Baltimore Sun
Former Ravens linebacker O.J. Brigance headed to Annapolis to testify against right-to-die bill.

Former Ravens linebacker O.J. Brigance plans to urge state lawmakers to vote against right-to-die legislation in Annapolis, lending a prominent voice to one of the most controversial issues facing the General Assembly this year.

"It is my belief that valuable contributions can still be made in life, despite one being diagnosed with a terminal illness," said Brigance, whose public seven-year fight against ALS has made the former star and current Ravens front-office staffer both a national advocate for people with the neurodegenerative disease and an inspiration to the team.

"I don't think legislation should be approved to legally take a life before the appointed time," he said. 

Brigance said in an e-mail Monday he plans to testify Tuesday when lawmakers resume hearings on physician-assisted suicide, which sparked hours of emotional testimony before House committee on Friday. The proposed law would allow terminally ill patients who have been given less than six months to live to request a prescription for a life-ending drug. 

"My concern about passing such a policy is the possible error in time prognosis, robbing patients of precious time with loved ones," Brigance said.

Brigance, who made the first tackle in the Ravens' 2000 Super Bowl win, joined the front-office staff years before he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 2007. He is currently the Ravens' senior advisor to player development. 

He wades into a debate that has divided state lawmakers, many of whom have personal stories about watching a loved one endure a prolonged and painful death without reprieve. Many others have raised religious and ethical concerns about endorsing a lethal remedy for any patient. 

More than 15 states are considering right-to-die legislation this year after 29-year-old brain tumor patient Brittany Maynard spent the final months of her life advocating for the issue before taking her own life under Oregon's "Death with Dignity Act" last fall.  

In Maryland, the legislation bears the name of two prominent Annapolis politicians who both were diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.  Former Annapolis Mayor Roger "Pip" Moyer died in January; former Annapolis alderman and assistant attorney general Richard "Dick" Israel currently lives in hospice care.

Advocates have rallied in Annapolis and held a tearful press conference urging lawmakers to give an option for people to end their lives at their own choosing, and bristled at the opponent's charge they were lobbying for physician-assisted suicide. The bill requires the patient to take the pill without assistance. 

Opponents, including Jewish groups, the Maryland Catholic Conference and a handful of disability and mental health advocacy groups, have formed a coalition called "Maryland Against Physician Assisted Suicide." Disability and mental health advocates say the bill sanctions suicide as an appropriate way to end suffering, which could coerce people with disabilities to give up rather than burden loved ones with their care. 

The state's medical society is so divided on the issue that it has declined to take a position. 

"We have doctors all over the place," said MedChi CEO Gene Ransom, adding that consensus on the issue seems unlikely. "I don't know if we ever will because it's such a divisive issue."

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