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Maryland lawmakers grapple with end-of-life bill

Members of the House of Delegates Health and Government Operations and Judiciary committees hear testimony for and against a medically-assisted death bill before the Maryland General Assembly. More than 150 people filled the Joint Hearing Room in Annapolis.
Members of the House of Delegates Health and Government Operations and Judiciary committees hear testimony for and against a medically-assisted death bill before the Maryland General Assembly. More than 150 people filled the Joint Hearing Room in Annapolis. (Pamela Wood / The Baltimore Sun)

State lawmakers heard hours of heart-wrenching testimony Friday from advocates who ask that people with terminal illnesses be allowed to end their lives.

They heard about a wife who beat cancer for seven years only to die in pain, a husband who suffered from leukemia, and a mother-in-law who gasped in agony as she took her last breaths.

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But legislators also heard that all life is precious and mustn't be extinguished — and that the bill before them offered no protections for people with developmental disabilities, or others who might be coerced into deciding to die.

For the second year, lawmakers in the Maryland General Assembly are grappling with whether to legalize medically assisted death, which also has been called "medical aid in dying," "death with dignity" or "assisted suicide."

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More than 150 people packed a hearing room in Annapolis, where members of the House Health and Government Operations and Judiciary committees heard from passionate advocates and opponents. Some wore stickers that said "end assisted suicide." Others wore yellow T-shirts from Compassion & Choices, an advocacy group in favor of allowing patients to get medical help to die.

Two lawmakers — Del. Shane Pendergrass, a Howard County Democrat, and Del. Chris West, a Baltimore County Republican — are sponsoring legislation that would allow doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to patients who are terminally ill.

West said the bill was a matter of personal freedom and that a person should "have the right to control his or her own body" without government interference. He said when pain and fear intensify at the end of one's life, a person should be able to "opt to die peacefully and painlessly."

West said when his mother-in-law died of acute emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder four years ago, she suffered as she struggled to breathe, despite receiving oxygen. He thinks his mother-in-law might have considered a peaceful end had it been an option.

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"I believe everyone is one bad death away from supporting this bill," he said.

Pendergrass said she wasn't sure she would want to end her own life if terminally ill, but that she at least wants to have the option.

Under the bill, a patient would have to consult with a doctor multiple times — once in private — to discuss their prognosis. The doctor would have to determine that the patient has less than six months to live, is capable of making sound judgments and can administer the medication him- or herself.

Once a doctor writes a prescription, it would be up to the patient to fill it and take the lethal drugs.

While proponents stressed that safeguards would be in place, not everyone was convinced a patient couldn't be coerced or manipulated.

"There are no safeguards and no protections," said Poetri S. Deal, director of advocacy for The Arc of Maryland, which serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She said people with disabilities might make a poor choice because they are eager to please their loved ones or doctors.

Dr. Kevin Donovan, director of Georgetown University's Center for Clinical Bioethics, said measures in the bill aren't really intended to protect patients — they're meant to protect physicians who prescribe the lethal drugs.

He also said he thinks the name of the bill — the End of Life Option Act — is misleading.

"It is clearly suicide that we're talking about," he said.

Delegates offered a range of opinions as they questioned the people who spoke before the committee. Some appeared solidly in favor of passing the bill, while others clearly opposed it. A Senate hearing is scheduled next week.

The fate of the bill is unclear. Last year, when similar legislation was proposed for the first time in Annapolis, lawmakers heard similar testimony but did not vote on the measure.

The bill is named in honor of former Annapolis Mayor Roger "Pip" Moyer and former Annapolis Alderman Richard E. Israel, a lawyer who advised members of the General Assembly. Both men had Parkinson's disease and died last year.

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