The Maryland Senate today defeated a "death with dignity" proposal to make Maryland the second state in the nation to allow terminally ill hospital patients to refuse extraordinary life-sustaining measures.
On a day about which Sen. Margaret C. Schweinhaut (D-Montgomery) noted, "death is sort of stalking this chamber," the Senate also amended the death penalty bill to require that jury recommendations for death sentences must be unanimous rather than simple majorities.
The first bill, sponsored by Sen. Julian L. Lapides (D-Baltimore), would have allowed citizens of sound mind to sign a directive ordering physicians not to prolong their life with life-sustaining medical machines when death was imminent and certain.
The only state that has enacted such a law is California, following the highly publicized case of Karen Quinlan, the New Jersey woman who was sustained for 13 months with a respirator while her family sought legal permission was granted finally, but Miss Quinlan has been able to survive in an unconscious state without the machine.
Opponents of the Maryland bill argued that it would do nothing more than givedoctors a legal umbrella for the kinds of actions they already take routinely, and that it would represent a breach in the legal wall holding back euthanasia, or mercy-killing proposals.
"what's at stake is whether this state will take the first, perhaps small, timid and tentative steps toward recognizing a philosophy we know as euthanasia," said Sen. John carroll Byrnes (D-Baltimore).
"What is more important: the discomfort and medical bills of a few unfortunate people... or a philosophy of civilization and government" that opposes giving in to death, asked Byrnes.
The legislation was proposed "not to save money, but to protect the dignity of life." said Lapides, who produced witnesses at an earlier hearing to testify that some persons have been kept alive on medical machines for weeks after they were functionally dead.
"The medical profession today has perfected the means of prolonging death, rather than the means of prolonging life," said Lapides.
"This is not a matter of taking life. It's a matter of choice for those who know life is ended," said Sen. Verda F. Welcome (D-Baltimore).
Sen. Rosalie S. Abrams (D-Baltimore), a nurse, who is one of few practicing medical professionals in the Senate, said she opposed the bill because she does not think adequate guidelines to safeguard patients can be written into "death with dignity" legislation.
"You can't pass legislation for the good it does without considering the evil it might also do." she said.
"We have a growing medical industry. We also have a growing medical malpractice industry, which gives doctors great pause...This kind of legislation gives safeguards to the medical people, but does not give safeguards to their patients."
That the bill was even debated on the Senate floor this year is an indication of a new willingness in the Assembly to consider legislation of its kind. Similar legislation in past years has never made it to the floor.
This year's bill was defeated in committee, then allowed on the floor in a vote last week that was considered largely a courtesy to Lapides. The bill was voted down today to 33 to 13.
The death penalty bill has already cleared its major hurdle in the Senate, in a vote last week to overturn its defeat in committee.
Patterned after guidelines laid down by the U.S. Supreme Court, the bill provides for a two-level trial in death penalty cases. The first trial would determine the guilt or innocent of a defendant; the second would consider aggravating and mitigating circumstances to determine whether the death penalty or life imprisonment is appropriate.
As the bill was written, a unanimous jury would be needed to convict, but a simple majority of juror could vote to recommend the death penalty to a judge.The jury's recommendation would not be binding on the judge.
Today, the Senate approved an ammendment by Sen. Meyer Emanuel (D-Prince George's), requiring that the jury vote for execution be unanimous.
Sen. John C Coolahan (D-Baltimore County), the sponssor of the death penalty bill, pleaded with his colleagues not to support Emanuel's amendment.
If you want to make the bill a nullity, adopt this amendment," Coolahan said, predicting it would be almost impossible to get 12 jurors to agree on killing someone. "If you don't want the death penalty, adopt the amendment, because it guts the bill.