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Amid tears, bowed heads, Maryland House of Delegates approves legalizing medically assisted suicide

Following an intense and emotional debate that brought some lawmakers to tears, the Maryland House of Delegates approved a bill Thursday that would allow terminally ill adults to obtain prescription drugs they could take to end their lives.

It was the fourth attempt to pass the bill; it has failed in three past General Assembly sessions. Thursday’s vote was 74-66 — three votes more than the 71 votes required for passage.

Del. Eric Luedtke choked up as he described how he moved from being an opponent of the idea to a supporter.

The Montgomery County Democrat said he was long opposed to suicide, having had three relatives attempt it. But then his mother fell ill with esophageal cancer in 2014 and lost her independence and control of her body. A few days before she died, he found her in the kitchen, drinking a bottle of liquid morphine in an attempt to end her life.

“I began to ask myself what right I had, as a government official, and even as her son, to dictate to her how her life should end? What right do any of us have to determine that for another individual?”

Struggling to hold back tears, Luedtke said he was voting for the bill because it represented “restoring to people like my mother the ability to make a decision for themselves. A final decision for themselves.”

Luedtke was among several delegates who gave heartfelt, wrenching testimony during the somber debate that lasted nearly 90 minutes. Several shared stories of loved ones who died painful deaths or their own experiences with serious diseases. Others invoked their faith, saying that it’s not up to humans to decide when they die.

At times, delegates wiped away tears. Others bowed their heads or looked skyward in contemplation.

“This is an intensely painful issue for all of us,” said Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith, a Prince George’s County Democrat who spoke against the bill.

After the vote was taken, Del. Shane Pendergrass, the bill’s sponsor, smiled and fist-bumped Del. Kumar Barve.

“I think that the quote that ‘Every person is one bad death away from supporting this bill’ was prophetic. It has been the thing that has resonated most with me over the years,” Pendergrass, a Howard County Democrat, said in an interview.

Talk to us: Readers explain their stances on medically assisted suicide »

A companion bill sponsored by Sen. Will Smith is pending in the state Senate.

The legislation would allow a doctor to prescribe drugs to a patient that the person could take to end his or her life. The patient must be at least 18 years old and have a terminal illness with a prognosis of less than six months to live. The patient must request the prescription on three occasions, including once in private and once in writing — provisions meant to prevent patients from being coerced.

Supporters said having the option of medically assisted suicide would allow people to maintain control and die without suffering.

Del. Sandy Bartlett described the excruciating pain she suffered while in treatment for bilateral breast cancer. Having confronted her mortality, Bartlett, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said she doesn’t want to suffer in death.

“I do not want anyone forcing me to live in pain or in a drugged state or die humanely in starvation in hospice,” she said.

Some delegates used their personal stories to argue the opposite point — that it’s not appropriate to end anyone’s life prematurely.

Del. Cheryl Glenn recounted her sister’s final days after a stroke, when she thinks her sister might have ended her life if she had had the option.

But living a few days longer allowed her sister’s estranged son to travel from overseas, and the two reconciled. Had her sister killed herself, “she would have left this world without making peace with her only son,” said Glenn, a Baltimore Democrat.

Glenn said the experience reminded her: “We don’t know what tomorrow holds, we really don’t.”

Others cited their faith, saying that they believe that life and death are in the hands of God, not human beings.

“Are we becoming above God?” asked Del. Ric Metzgar, a Baltimore County Republican.

Del. Jay Walker recalled the gospel song lyrics: “Lord, lift us up where we belong.”

“It doesn’t say, ‘Doctor, take us where we belong’ or ‘Nurse, lift us up where we belong,’ ” Walker said. “It says, ‘Lord, lift us up where we belong.’ ”

Walker, a Prince George’s County Democrat, said allowing people to end their lives amounts to “overstepping our bounds.”

As on the House floor, the bill has been the subject of lengthy committee hearings full of intimate stories on both sides of the issue. Several hundred people demonstrated against the bill Monday during a March for Life in Annapolis.

Jennifer Briemann, director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, issued a statement praising delegates who had the “courage to stand up to the out-of-state interests pushing this predatory agenda.”

She called on state senators and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to prevent “this dangerously flawed bill” from becoming law.

Kim Callinan, CEO of Compassion & Choices, an Oregon-based organization that promotes such legislation, observed the debate from the House balcony. She said with baby boomers beginning to reach retirement age, they are dealing with deaths of their parents and peers, causing them to rethink their views on death experiences.

A recent poll from Goucher College found 62 percent of Marylanders support allowing terminally ill patients to obtain medication to end their lives.

Six states and the District of Columbia have laws allowing doctors to prescribe lethal prescriptions to qualifying patients. Seventeen states are considering similar legislation, according to state analysts.

Doctors, too, are becoming more supportive of the bills, Callinan said. MedChi, the Maryland State Medical Society, previously opposed the bill but took a neutral stance this year.

Smith, the lead Senate bill sponsor and a Montgomery County Democrat, said he was optimistic about the legislation’s chances after the House vote.

“It gives us a lot of momentum in the Senate,” he said. “I suspect that the Senate floor will be a very close vote.”

Hogan, a Republican, has not committed to a position on the bill. He has said that it is “one that I really wrestle with from a personal basis” and that he would give it careful consideration if it reaches his desk.

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

pwood@baltsun.com

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