Raven O.J. Brigance joins emotional debate over 'death with dignity' bill

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Ravens' O.J. Brigance testifies against death with dignity measure.

Fourteen years ago, O.J. Brigance delivered the first tackle in the Ravens' first Super Bowl win.

On Tuesday, testifying with a machine that replaced the voice taken from him by ALS, the former linebacker told Maryland lawmakers that his most significant feat came after he grieved over his degenerative condition and decided to live.

"Because I decided to live life the best I could, there has been a ripple effect of goodness in the world," Brigance said. "Since being diagnosed, I have done a greater good for society in eight years than in my previous 37 years on earth."

His testimony came during an emotional hearing in Annapolis on a proposed "death with dignity" law, a measure that is named in honor of Richard E. "Dick" Israel, another prominent Marylander with a neurodegenerative disease. While Israel is spending his final months fighting for the right to end his life, Brigance says his terminal disease brought meaning to his.

The proposal would allow terminally ill patients to obtain a lethal dose of a drug from doctors, making Maryland the sixth state to pass right-to-die legislation.

Brigance, who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 2007, urged lawmakers not to sanction death for people facing terminal illness.

"The thought that there would be a legal avenue for an individual to take his or her own life in a moment of despair — robbing family, friends and society of their presence and contribution to society — deeply saddens me and is a tragedy," said Brigance, who is currently the Ravens' senior adviser to player development.

The issue has divided lawmakers, pitting those who see granting the terminally ill a choice to die as an act of compassion against those who view it as devaluing the patient's remaining days.

Brigance's testimony, given from a wheelchair, drew applause from a packed committee hearing room.

"Whatever side of any issue you're on, you're truly inspiring," Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, told Brigance.

The pitch from a popular public figure was a high-profile move by opponents to counteract the wrenching tales told by the bill's supporters of watching family members struggle through the final stage of life.

Former Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs testified about Israel, a former assistant attorney general and Annapolis alderman in the final stages of Parkinson's disease.

"Dick Israel is a mind imprisoned in a body that is useless," Sachs said.

Israel, unable to leave hospice care or speak, wrote testimony for his friends to read at the hearing.

"As the body continues to fail to respond to the mind, life loses its meaning, purpose and hope," he wrote. "It is a harsh fact of life that life inevitably ends in death. The only issue here is whether an individual should have a choice of the timing and the circumstance."

Maryland is among 15 states weighing "death with dignity" bills this year, a wave of legislation prompted by the advocacy of 29-year-old brain tumor patient Brittany Maynard. Maynard took her own life under Oregon's right-to-die law last fall.

On Tuesday, Gov. Larry Hogan said he would consider signing such a bill based on its merits, and said his Catholic faith is "not going to have anything to do with" the decision. During the campaign, he told a Catholic organization he did not support physician-assisted suicide.

"I'm kind of torn," Hogan told reporters. "I've got some issues about helping people terminate their lives, but I also understand that some people go through some difficult times and they're suffering. I see both sides of the issue."

During more than two hours of testimony infused with personal anecdotes from lawmakers and prominent former politicians, advocates told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee that Maryland's proposed law would empower patients to take control of their final days.

"I don't think this is a religious argument," said Sen. Ron Young, a sponsor of the bill. "It is a personal choice. ... No one else can judge their pain and suffering."

The bill would allow patients who have a prognosis of six months or less to live and are deemed mentally competent to ask a doctor for a prescription for a lethal medication. Patients would have to be physically capable of taking the drug themselves, and doctors could refuse to prescribe such medication.

The state's medical society chose not to take a position on the death-with-dignity issue, citing irreconcilable division among its members.

Mental health experts and advocates for the disabled warned that the proposal could hurt some of the state's most vulnerable populations.

An attorney with expertise in elder law warned that family members could coerce loved ones to forgo life-extending treatment in order to preserve larger inheritances for themselves. A psychiatrist said people facing a terminal illness often suffer from depression, and may be mentally competent but nonetheless not in a state to choose to end their lives.

Several witnesses warned that right-to-die legislation could have unintended consequences for people with developmental or intellectual disabilities, who might consider sanctioned suicide an alternative to burdening loved ones with their care.

"If you say to me today you want to die, I'm obliged to commit you," said David "Ted" George, a psychiatrist who testified against the House version of the bill. "Now there will be people who say, 'I want to die,' and I'm supposed to say, 'OK, go die?'"

While opponents argued that the bill's safeguards are not strong enough — and suggested mental health screenings — proponents contended that the bill already had multiple lines of defense.

The proposal requires a patient to make three requests — one written — of a doctor, and get a second opinion from another physician about the terminal diagnosis.

Lawmakers, quick to share stories of watching their own parents die, wrestled with questions about the social impact of a reversal of public policy on the issue.

Maryland banned physician-assisted suicide in 1999, part of nationwide tide that followed the infamy of Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Physician-assisted suicide is a felony in the state.

The proposal has split lawmakers along partisan lines, with few Republicans expressing support. A Feb. 24 poll by Goucher College found 60 percent of surveyed residents supported the bill. House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller, both Democrats, have said they wrestle with the teaching of their Catholic faith as they consider what would make good public policy.

Miller has said his chamber is likely to wait for the House to act first on the legislation.

Harford County Sen. Bob Cassilly, a Republican, questioned the cultural impact of sanctioning an easy death.

"I have personally gained very much from watching people struggle through death," he said. "The mighty are laid low and the rest of us are required to step in and keep death dignified."

Sachs told Cassilly he respectfully disagreed about the meaning of death, particularly for Israel.

"I do not think what he is going through now is for my benefit," Sachs said. "He, not I, is the one who should make that judgment."

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