In a hearing room filled with priests' collars and nuns' habits, a Maryland Senate committee recently heard an impassioned disagreement among clergymen, doctors and laymen over whether the state should legislate the right to die.
Neither the priests, the doctors nor the laymen could agree about the propriety of a bill sponsored by Sen. Julian L. Lapides (D-Baltimore), which would write into the law the right of patients certified terminally ill by two doctors to demand the winholding of "extraordinary" life-support measures.
Instead, advocates and opponents of the bill came to the Senate Judiciary Committee room armed with shocking stories and moral arguments designed to prove that the bill is either a much-needed protection against mindless medical technology or a dangerous and cludelicate ethical ground.
The theme for many supporters of the bill was set by Claire E. Loder, a medical social worker from Baltimore County who has specialized in care for the terminally ill.
"In my seven years as a medical social worker, I saw and heard patients fight for death against the insurmountable circumstances of our sophisticated medical weaponry," she said. I saw families literally destroyed by their extended grieving in anticipation of a death delayed by that same arsenal of medical material.
"I saw patients begging their physicians and nurses to end the charade of mechanical sustenance, and caretakers who were terrified of the legal consequences of so doing . . ."
Opponents of the bill were led by the Rev. Neil J. O'Donnell, a representative of the archdiocese of Baltimore, Washington and Wilmington. O'Donnell said the Catholic Church has always recognized the right to die with dignity, but fears that legislation in the area could create a dangerous precedent for euthanasia.
"This is but the initial thrust for positive euthanasia - the direct killing of the terminally ill and the elimination of other socially nonproductive members of society," he said.
O'Donnell said patients already have the right to refuse treatment and questioned "the involvement of legislation in very serious ethical concerns."
O'Donnell had no answer for a question asked by one committee member, Sen. John J. Bishop (R-Baltimore County). "Ethical considerations could work the other way, couldn't they?" queried against his will can be as unethical as ending his life before he wants it."
Loder, the nurse, has the most macabre story. "I saw one woman whose nose, ears, fingers and toes decomposed," she said. "She had been dead for six weeks," but kept on a respirator and a heart pacer, she said.
Margaret Wheltle, a representative of St. Mary's Home for the Aging in Catonsville, said both of her parents died within the last four years and both had been kept alive by "extraordinary" medical procedures.
"Even though they knew they had nothing but pain ahead of them, they wanted to live," she said. "The value to them, the value to the family, was tremendous."
A Elston Cuddeback of Columbia spoke for a group of people whose interest in the bill is more direct than most. "There is a great concern among the elderly about dying," said the secretary of Maryland's branch of the American Association of Retired Persons. There is a deep dread of being incapacitated and not being allowed to die when developments reach that point."
Before the hearing, the bill was not given much of a chance of getting through the largely conservative General Assembly. Committee members, though, appeared to give the bill a warmer reception than anticipated.