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Senate panel approves right-to-die measure Opposition expected from Catholic Church STATE HOUSE REPORT


Another article in yesterday's editions misidentified the home county of Sen. Walter M. Baker, who is from Cecil.

The Sun regrets the errors.

A Senate committee approved so-called right-to-die legislation yesterday on a vote of 6-to-5.

The bill would give Maryland residents much more power over health-care decisions in cases when death appears inevitable or prolonged life seems meaningless.

Similar legislation is being worked on in the House. But before any bill becomes law, it will face strong opposition from the Roman Catholic Church.

At one point yesterday, as the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee tried to work out a compromise on language in the bill, Chairman Walter M. Baker, D-Kent, said:

"There is no middle ground on this. It's the abortion issue of this session."

Opponents fear that the measure, while specifically prohibiting euthanasia and assisted suicide, does not do enough to protect incapacitated patients from relatives or doctors who might be too eager to cease life-support measures.

"This bill threatens people who are vulnerable physically and financially," said Richard J. Dowling, lobbyist for the Maryland Catholic Conference.

"I think the senators on the committee look at this as people from good families who would always try to do what is right for a loved one," he said.

"What they have to understand is that not all families are like that."

Roger Stenson, executive director of Maryland Right to Life, said his group may not oppose the bill.

"It is clear to us that some bill is going to be passed," he said. "This may well be the best one we can get."

The measure approved by the Senate committee in Annapolis yesterday allows a person to:

* Designate someone else to make critical health-care decisions.

* Specify in advance precisely what medical procedures should be used to sustain life.

Moreover, Senate Bill 664 applies not just when death is imminent, but also when the person is suffering from what is termed an "end-stage condition," such as Alzheimer's disease, or is in a "persistent vegetative state."

The bill's sponsor is Sen. Paula Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat whose background as a nurse has made her one of the General Assembly's experts on health care matters.

The Hollinger bill was one of two measures introduced in the Senate this session dealing with right-to-die issues.

The other came out of a study committee chaired by former Baltimore Sen. John Carroll Byrnes, now a judge on the city's Circuit Court.

In 1986, Judge Byrnes refused to grant an order to remove life support from a comatose stroke victim, an order requested by her doctors and family.

Six days later, Judge Byrnes says, the woman awoke and has since recovered.

The committee he put together produced a 30-page bill that Senator Hollinger, whose bill was half as long, said was too complex and restrictive.

Judicial Proceedings Committee member John A. Pica, a Democrat from Baltimore who worked on the Byrnes committee, put some of the more restrictive language from the Byrnes bill into the Hollinger measure. That compromise bill was approved yesterday.

"Like all compromises, not everyone is happy," Judge Byrnes said. "But I think we are all fairly well convinced that the balance we have been searching for has been achieved."

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