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Medically assisted suicide bill moves forward in Maryland General Assembly

After failing three times in recent years, a bill that would allow terminally ill Maryland residents to obtain prescription drugs to end their own lives is moving forward in the state's General Assembly.

Two House of Delegates committees jointly voted Friday to advance the “End of Life Options Act” to the full chamber, which will debate the measure next week.

Del. Shane Pendergrass, who has been sponsoring the bill for years, teared up and hugged Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk as soon as the vote was tallied as 24 delegates in favor and 20 opposed.

“It means to me that all the people who have come down here over the years — some of whom are not here anymore — got what they wished for,” said Pendergrass, a Howard County Democrat. “Though they won’t be able to use it, other people will. This will help people.”

The bill would allow a doctor to prescribe drugs to a patient that the person could take to end his or her life. The patient would be required to have a terminal illness with a diagnosis of less than six months to live.

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.

The bill has been the subject of lengthy hearings full of heartfelt testimony from both sides of the issue. Retired radio talk show host Diane Rehm was among those who testified this year for the bill. She recounted how her husband, who had Parkinson’s disease, elected to stop eating and drinking to hasten his death.

Opponents — including the Catholic Church — argued that life is precious and should not be ended prematurely. Some people have suggested that terminally ill patients would be better served by palliative care such as hospice services, rather than medically assisted suicide.

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

Supporters say that terminally ill patients should not suffer needlessly in their final days and should have control over when they die.

Medically assisted suicide has been promoted in Maryland and other states by the Oregon-based organization Compassion & Choices. Several people wearing yellow Compassion & Choices T-shirts observed the joint committee vote.

Kim Callinan, CEO of Compassion & Choices, praised lawmakers for the vote.

“After four long years of education and debate on this issue, Maryland residents cannot afford to wait any longer,” she said in a statement.

The bill is named in honor of two late Annapolis political figures: former Mayor Roger “Pip” Moyer, who died in 2015, and former Annapolis Alderman Richard “Dick” Israel. Israel lobbied for the bill in 2015 from his hospice room 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. Pendergrass, realizing the bill would not pass in 2018, declined to introduce it last year.

Friday’s vote was taken collectively among the full membership of the two committees — the same way the same committees voted on a bill to allow same-sex marriage in 2012. Among Health and Government Operations Committee members, 14 were in support and seven were opposed. Among Judiciary Committee members, 10 supported the bill and 12 were opposed.

Delegates took their vote without any debate Friday, though they discussed proposed amendments that ultimately failed. Those amendments would have required a patient to decline hospice care before getting the prescription and would have changed a part of the bill that requires the patient’s death certificate to list the underlying medical condition as the cause of death.

A companion bill sponsored by Sen. Will Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat, is pending in the Senate.

Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, has said that the bill is “one that I really wrestle with from a personal basis.” He has said he would give the legislation careful consideration if reaches to his desk.

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

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