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Legal Matters: New bill attempts to end prosecution for attempting suicide

The legal status of attempted suicide, which is a crime in Maryland, has been in the news recently with the introduction of a bill in the current General Assembly session. The bill would rule out the possibility of prosecution for those who attempt suicide or others who help them.

The simple one-sentence bill introduced by Del. David Moon, a Montgomery County Democrat, says, “Providing that attempted suicide is not a crime in the State; prohibiting that the act of attempting to commit suicide, in itself, may not form the basis of a certain criminal charge; and providing that the common law offense of attempted suicide is abrogated and repealed.”

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Common law refers to laws handed down from English law, derived from custom and judges’ decisions. Such laws can be enforced, just as laws passed by the General Assembly and signed by the governor are enforceable.

Successful suicides, of course, cannot be prosecuted, because the person who committed the act is dead. Deliberate mercy killing violates the state’s euthanasia laws, although withdrawing or withholding life support may be allowed.

An unsuccessful attempt to commit suicide may land a Maryland resident in court. An Eastern Shore resident was prosecuted for attempting suicide in 2018. The man pleaded guilty and received a three-year suspended sentence and two years of probation.

He may have difficulty obtaining a job because he now has a criminal conviction on his record.

Possible legal consequences for those who assist someone to commit suicide would remain part of the state code, even if the Moon bill passes.

Assisting someone to commit suicide by “knowingly [providing] the physical means by which another individual commits or attempts to commit suicide with knowledge of that individual’s intent to use the physical means to commit suicide” is a felony in Maryland. It carries a possible penalty of one year in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Medical professionals can face sanctions simply for providing information to patients who want to end their lives.

The medical license of a Maryland physician was revoked by the state board of physicians in 2014 after he admitted having been present as terminally ill patients ended their lives.

The physician, Dr. Lawrence Egbert, never admitted assisting in suicides, but provided information and companionship for terminally ill patients who sought to end their lives.

Licensed health care professionals are legally permitted to administer or prescribe a procedure or dispense drugs that may hasten death or increase the risk of death, so long as the drugs given or procedures done are not intended to cause the patient’s death.

Maryland health care professionals may also withhold or withdraw a medically administered life-sustaining procedure, if taking the action complies with the patient’s advance directive and meets the standard of reasonable medical practice.

A few states — California, Oregon, Vermont, Hawaii, Colorado, Washington and Washington D.C.--have legalized medically-assisted suicides for state residents. Such assistance, also limited to state residents, has been upheld by a court ruling in Montana, although the state law does not address it.

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