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Supporters of medically assisted suicide in Maryland say new legislators, sponsor increase bill's chances this year

After several years of failure, proponents of legalizing medically assisted suicide in Maryland believe they’ve got a better chance this year.

Dozens of people, many of them senior citizens, descended Tuesday on Annapolis, wearing yellow T-shirts from Compassion & Choices. The Portland, Ore.-based organization promotes what it calls “expanded options for compassionate dying.”

Del. Shane Pendergrass, who has sponsored the bill for the past several years, said she believes “this is the year” for the measure.

But there remains significant opposition from the Catholic Church and a coalition called Maryland Against Physician Assisted Suicide.

At a news conference Tuesday, Pendergrass recalled emotional hearings where she said she learned: “Every person is one bad death away from supporting this bill.”

“Many of us have been there and many of us are on the way to another one of those,” said Pendergrass, a Howard County Democrat.

Her bill would allow a doctor to prescribe drugs to a patient who had six months or less to live and asked for medication they could take to end their life. The patient would have to be at least 18 years old and ask for a prescription on three separate occasions, including at least once in writing with witnesses. The person also would have to be able to take the medicine by themselves.

Pendergrass plans to introduce the bill this week.

The bill is named for two prominent figures in the Annapolis political world: former Mayor Roger “Pip” Moyer, who died in 2015, and former Alderman Richard “Dick” Israel. Israel lobbied for the bill from his hospice room in 2015 as he suffered from the effects of Parkinson’s disease. He died later that year.

The bill failed in 2015, as well as in 2016 and 2017.

But Pendergrass believes there’s a change in fortunes this year.

She has a new cosponsor: Sen. Will Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat who is vice chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee that will consider the bill. Pendergrass is chairwoman of the Health and Government Operations Committee that will hear the bill in the House.

“We’ve balanced, with this piece of legislation, the need of those folks who are out there that need this end-of-life option, but also vulnerable populations,” Smith said.

Seven states and the District of Columbia have legalized allowing the terminally ill to end their own lives, Smith said, covering 20 percent of the nation’s population.

He noted that MedChi, the Maryland State Medical Society, is neutral on the bill, after initially opposing it.

An influx of new members to the General Assembly and increasing public support are giving supporters further hope this year, but opponents are ready to fight the proposal.

As Pendergrass, Smith and others spoke, representatives of the Maryland Catholic Conference — the Catholic Church’s lobbying arm — stood quietly outside observing. They provided a statement outlining their concerns.

“Our state has repeatedly rejected this group’s agenda and with good reason,” wrote Jennifer Briemann, the conference’s executive director. “Assisted suicide threatens Maryland’s most vulnerable, putting those with disabilities, the elderly, our veterans and those battling opioid addiction at grave risk.”

The church is part of the Maryland Against Physician Assisted Suicide coalition. In a separate statement released by the coalition, Dr. Joseph Marine, a cardiologist and associate professor at Johns Hopkins, condemned the legislation.

“Physician-assisted suicide is a dangerous proposition for Maryland and there is widespread concern among the medical community at large on the harmful implications of legalizing this unethical practice,” Marine’s statement said.

pwood@baltsun.com

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