Assisting in a suicide would become a crime in Maryland under legislation being proposed by Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.
In a 15-page opinion released yesterday, Mr. Curran urged state lawmakers to act on the issue promptly to pre-empt the type of legal questions raised in Michigan over the activities of "suicide doctor" Jack Kevorkian.
Mr. Curran said that he was not aware of similar physician-assisted suicides occurring in Maryland but noted that the state is one of only 20 that does not outlaw it.
Maryland law is unclear on the subject, he said.
"Suicide is chosen typically by folks who are despondent and depressed and not thinking as clearly as they should be," Mr. Curran said. "We want to protect those vulnerable persons."
The opinion was requested by Del. Ronald A. Guns, D-Cecil, who had asked the attorney general to research whether Maryland law provides criminal sanctions against physicians or other health care providers who assist patients in suicide, and whether such a law would be unconstitutional.
Questions have been raised about whether Maryland's recently enacted right-to-die law permits assisted suicide. Mr. Curran said the law clearly does not.
"I strongly support the right-to-die law, permitting people to reject medical treatment under certain circumstances," Mr. Curran said. "But the taking of one's life is not something we want to sanction in Maryland."
Dr. Jeffrey A. Lafferman, a geriatric psychiatrist at the Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital in Baltimore, said Mr. Curran's proposal is a positive step and called doctor-assisted suicides "out of step."
As the emphasis on geriatric medicine has increased, methods of making patients comfortable have gained attention, but more must be done, he said.
"That kind of care is underutilized," Dr. Lafferman said.
"Doctors often don't do enough to help the patient. There are plenty of ways to go in providing comfort measures."
But Mr. Curran's proposal met objection from Maryland's American Civil Liberties Union.
"We believe that competent adults, especially those facing terminal illness, should have the right to terminate their lives," said Stuart Comstock-Gay, ACLU director. "There are situations in which a person is in extreme pain and cannot do it themselves."
A Michigan law against assisting in a suicide was struck down in May, but an appellate court reinstated it. The law is currently
under review by the Michigan Court of Appeals.