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'Death with Dignity' advocates rally in Annapolis

Advocates for a "death with dignity" law lobbied Annapolis lawmakers Wednesday, trying to garner support for a proposal that's under consideration in legislatures across the country.

A pending bill that would allow certain terminally ill patients to take a doctor-prescribed pill will get its first hearing in Annapolis on Friday. Before then, advocates hope to combat the perception they're proposing a "physician-assisted suicide" law.

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The proposed law, they said, expressly requires a patient to take a life-ending drug without any assistance.  It also would make it a felony to coerce a patient to chose to seek or take the drug, which would be prescribed by a doctor under narrow circumstances.

A wave of such legislation has been introduced in at least 15 states following the high-profile advocacy of 29-year-old brain tumor patient Brittany Maynard. Maynard ended her life this fall under Oregon's death with dignity law.

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In Maryland, a recent survey by Goucher College found 60 percent of residents supported a physician-assisted suicide bill.

Despite a change shift in public support, the bill is expected to be controversial in Annapolis, where 25 years ago lawmakers voted to make physician-assisted suicide a felony.

Several groups in the disability community plan to testify against the proposal, arguing that encourages people who have depression or are dependent on other people to choose suicide.

"We think it really puts people with disabilities at significant risk of being told that they should end their lives," said Samantha Crane, director of public policy with the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.

More than two dozen advocates and a handful of lawmakers pushing the proposal in Maryland held a tearful press conference where several recounted the awful options confronting loved ones facing a terminal disease.

Alexa Fraser said her 90-year-old father suffered from Parkinson's disease and unsuccessfully tried suicide by pill overdose and slitting his wrists before he shot himself to death.  She said people facing the final six months of life deserve better options.

Del. Shane Pendergrass, the primary sponsor of the legislation, said her bill was very narrowly written to only apply to patients who have six months or less to live, have a terminal disease, and have found a doctor willing to prescribe the drug.  Physicians would be allowed to opt out.

She said her law would give dying people "some semblance of control."

"We're simply all going to die," Pendergrass said. "If we can make that end a better end, then let's do that."

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