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Bill to legalize medically assisted suicide in Maryland defeated in state Senate

A bill that would have legalized medically assisted suicide in Maryland was defeated in a dramatic tie vote. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun video)

A measure that would have legalized medically assisted suicide in Maryland was defeated Wednesday on a dramatic tie vote in the state Senate.

Sen. Will Smith, the bill’s sponsor, said he hoped senators will build on this year’s work on the bill as they debate the measure in future years.

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“I'm proud of the work we did. I'm proud of the product that I brought to the Senate,” said Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat. “And I'm proud of my ‘Yes’ vote today.”

The bill, known as the “End of Life Options Act,” had failed three times before in the Maryland General Assembly.

But it gained momentum this year, with the House of Delegates approving the measure following an intense and emotional debate.

The measure faced more scrutiny in the Senate, where a committee added further requirements for patients and doctors. The bill was changed so much that some advocates for the bill worried that few patients would have been able to request medication from doctors.

The bill would have allowed certain terminally ill adults with a prognosis of less than six months to live to request a prescription for drugs that they could take to end their lives.

Wednesday’s vote in the state Senate was a rare roll call vote on second reading. Customarily, a second reading vote is a voice vote without a record made of each senator’s vote.

The vote was 23-23, one vote shy of the 24 votes needed in the 47-member Senate to advance the bill to a final vote.

Sen. Obie Patterson, a Prince George’s County Democrat, was in his seat but did not cast a vote, ultimately spelling the bill’s demise. The Senate’s rules require every member who is present to vote “on every question put to the Senate.”

“I did not cast a vote simply because I could not bring myself to move right or left on the bill and therefore I didn’t vote at all,” Patterson told reporters later.

Patterson, who is active in Fort Foote Baptist Church in Fort Washington, said he’s heard from church members and constituents on both sides of the issue.

Asked if he did his job as a senator by not voting either way, Patterson responded: “I researched it, I talked with folks and my decision today was not to cast a vote. But I think I did my job. I did not relinquish my responsibility to thoroughly review all of the concerns I had about the bill. At the end of the day, I felt I could not cast a vote.”

Senators debated the bill for about an hour before the vote, with some saying that allowing medical suicide would be an important personal choice.

Others said the practice should not be allowed. Some senators who voted against the bill recalled the General Assembly’s action a few years ago to abolish the death penalty — in part on the grounds that life is precious, even the life of a convicted criminal.

Sen. Michael Hough, a Frederick County Republican, said that his vote in favor of keeping the death penalty has haunted him. He pledged to himself that if he ever faced a vote like that again, “I would err on the side of life.”

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Others questioned the logic of allowing doctors, who they see as people who save lives, to participate in a process that leads to death.

“There are no do-overs in this type of law,” said Sen. Bryan Simonaire, an Anne Arundel County Republican. “Doctors have and will continue to make mistakes and miscalculations. They are humans. Once a life is taken, it is final.”

But other senators argued that people should be able to make their own decisions about death. Sen. Nancy King, a Montgomery County Democrat, likened the decision to abortion: while she might not believe it is right for her, she wanted the choice.

“That decision is between me and my God and nobody else,” she said.

Sen. Ron Young, a Frederick County Democrat who sponsored the bill in previous years, also said he wanted the option should he ever become terminally ill.

“I love life. And I hope I fight right to the last second. I don’t know that I would ever use this, but I would like the option to, if it got that bad,” Young said.

The senators who spoke on the bill were serious and earnest in their remarks, but the discussion did not have the gravitas of an earlier debate in the House of Delegates. In that chamber, delegates were riveted by their colleagues’ remarks, with some moved to tears and others bowing their heads.

During the Senate debate, some senators left the chamber and others spoke on their phones or to one another. When the vote was called, Senate President Pro-tem Kathy Klausmeier had to ring bells that are a signal to senators to return to the chamber.

After the Senate session, Smith said he hoped the measure would go farther in future years. He said he will sponsor the bill again, but perhaps not next year.

The tied vote means that the issue is not settled, said Smith.

“It definitely marks a lot of progress and I can be really proud of that,” Smith said.

The vote comes as Smith is wrapping up his work for this General Assembly session. Thursday is his final day in Annapolis before he is deployed to Afghanistan with the Navy Reserve.

The session adjourns April 8.

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