As state legislators prepare to debate a bill making it a felony to assist in a suicide, opponents say a new poll suggests that Marylanders would prefer a statute legalizing such assistance.
When asked to choose between the two options, respondents preferred a law specifically permitting assisted suicides by a margin of about 3 to 1, according to the random survey conducted since Jan. 1.
Sidney Hollander, of the Towson marketing research firm that polled 500 Marylanders, said respondents' answers were affected only minimally by their religious affiliation, although people who attend religious services are more frequently likely to disapprove of suicide under any circumstances.
About 60 percent of both Roman Catholic and non-Catholic respondents said "there are circumstances when a patient has a right" to take his or her own life.
Even greater percentages -- 66 percent for Catholics and 68 percent for non-Catholics -- favored a law permitting physicians to assist in a suicide.
A hearing on Senate Bill 343 is scheduled at 1 p.m. tomorrow before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee in Annapolis. The bill would make helping a person commit suicide a felony, punishable by a three-year prison term or a $10,000 fine.
The bill would allow "any interested person" to go to court to prevent someone from assisting in a suicide, and it would make assisting in a suicide grounds for suspending the license of a doctor.
The chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, Sen. Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, told the Associated Press, "I don't think need the bill. There's been no problem in Maryland to my knowledge with assisted suicide."
At a public forum on the issue Saturday at Towson Unitarian Universalist Church on Dulaney Valley Road, Mr. Hollander said he was not surprised that a majority in the poll chose the assisted-suicide option. But he was surprised that the support was by such a large margin.
In the poll, the percentage of respondents who said that suicide is never justifiable was virtually the same -- about 30 percent -- among people identifying themselves as Catholics and people of other faiths. Catholic teachings strongly oppose suicide.
During discussions at the Unitarian Universalist church, Jack Schwartz, an assistant Maryland attorney general, defended the Senate bill, prepared by his office. He said it is needed to end confusion about what is legal in Maryland and what is not.
In all 50 states, active euthanasia -- such as when the husband of a terminally ill woman puts a gun to her head and kills her -- is a crime. But it is not always punished, Mr. Schwartz said.
Only 35 states have specifically made assisting in a suicide, such as those in Michigan by Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a crime. "In Maryland, there is nothing on the books, so the law is not clear," xTC said Mr. Schwartz, adding that he was "not surprised that our proposal runs against public opinion."
Dr. Clarence G. Schulz, a Sheppard Pratt Health System psychiatrist who was one of the panelists, said he considered the proposed law a bad idea. Most of his audience appeared to agree.
The study, conducted by Hollander Cohen & McBride of Towson, was commissioned by author Ralph K. White, a Cockeysville resident who is a retired professor of psychology at George Washington University and one of the founders of Psychologists for Social Responsibility.