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Right-to-die advocates renew push in Maryland, have Busch's support

Bolstered by a victory in California this week, "death with dignity" advocates in Maryland have renewed their push to allow terminally ill patients to use a prescription drug to end their lives.

"As with gay marriage, there is a wave," said Del. Shane Pendergrass, a committee vice chairman and leading advocate of passing right-to-die legislation in Annapolis next year.

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"The more attention is paid to it, the more people will come around," the Howard County Democrat said. "A state like California is a big deal. Headlines churn up interest."

Opponents say the publicity is sure to galvanize their side, too.

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"The California law passing will wake people up in Maryland that the bill will be taken seriously," said Mary Ellen Russell, chief lobbyist for the Maryland Catholic Conference. "It will energize a lot more people."

A panel of lawmakers gathered in Annapolis Tuesday to wade into the details of how such laws work elsewhere, one day after California became the fifth and largest state to enact one. When California's law takes effect, one in six Americans will live in a state where the terminally ill have the right to use a lethal prescription drug.

The effort in Maryland has gained a powerful ally in House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who said publicly Tuesday for the first time he supports the concept.

"Under the proper restraints, people should have the right to make that decision," Busch, a Democrat, said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun.

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Busch is the first of the state's top leaders to take a definitive stance on the issue. He previously joined Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat, and Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, in saying they were conflicted and saw both sides of the issue. All three men are Catholic, and nationwide the church has been among the strongest opponents of right-to-die laws.

Aides to Hogan and Miller said Tuesday that their bosses have not revised positions given earlier this year when the legislature was in session.

In March, Hogan said his Catholic faith "would not have anything to do" with his decision on the issue and that he was "kind of torn." At the time, Miller said: "My religion takes me one way, and my gut takes me another. I'm conflicted. … If it was a member of my family or myself, I would like the ability to have that decision."

Maryland was one of 26 states that considered death-with-dignity legislation within the past year, according to the advocacy group Compassion & Choices. The wave followed the highly publicized death of 29-year-old Brittany Maynard, a Californian who moved to Oregon to take her own life rather than wait to die from brain cancer.

Compassion & Choices President Barbara Coombs Lee called passage in California their biggest victory since Oregon passed the first so-called death with dignity law in 1994.

The organization has targeted New York next. But Brandi Alexander, regional field director for Compassion & Choices, said the organization will also commit resources in Maryland.

Maryland lawmakers considered a right-to-die bill during the 90-day legislative session that ended in April. Debate broke down over issues including whether patients would be screened for depression and whether family members would have to be notified in advance.

Rather than seeing the bill fail, advocates did not bring it to a vote. Miller and Busch created a "work group" of 10 lawmakers — seven Democrats and three Republicans — to review the issue instead.

The group met Tuesday for the second of three planned discussions on the bill. The tone of lawmakers' questioning suggested any debate will be emotional and charged.

When Sen. Wayne Norman, a Republican from Harford County, asked a policy analyst whether Medicare covers the lethal drug, he phrased it his way: "Is it taxpayer funds that pay for poisons?"

Norman also inquired whether it was necessary to have a doctor involved in the process by saying, "If I have a terminal disease, can I go in my garage and drink antifreeze if I want to? Do I need to go to a physician?"

As a doctor in Vermont explained that terminally ill patients often choose to end their lives by forgoing food and water, Pendergrass responded, "I would hate for that to be my only option — that or a bullet through my mouth."

Among other nods to the California law, Maryland advocates said they plan to call their bill an "end of life options act." They also plan to adopt provisions Pendergrass said were simpler approaches to preventing coercion and including other safeguards.

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