A young Laurel woman slipped into a coma during minor shoulder surgery last summer and was strapped to a hospital respirator for nine days before dying. Today, her mother visited the State House to say that she has painfully acdepted her daughterhs death -- but not the manner in which she was kept alive.
"Those nine days were just towture," Grace Helm told the Senate Finance Committee. "It was not dignified.She was just kept there, exposed, tied down, comatose, and for your information it cost more than $1,000 a day. For what? For all intents and purposes she was dead. But the hospital said they had to use the machines and the doctors said they couldn't sotp it."
Grace Helm was one of dozens of Maryland residents who testified here today on what has become known as the "Death with Dignity" bill, a measure that would allow a person to sign a declaration that directs doctors not to use artifical or extraordinary procedures to keep the patient alive if he is terminally ill.
The issue has grown more intense with the advancement of life-sustaining technology. It became the focus of a gripping national saga in 1975 when the parents of Karen Anne Quinlan went to court in an unsuccessful attempt to force a New Jersey hospital to "pull the plug" on the machines that they thought were needlessly prolonging the life of their comatose daghter.
In the years since, eight states have enacted "Death with Dignity" legislation -- California, Arkansas, Texas, Idaho, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon and New Mexico. Sen. Julian Lapides (D-Baltimore) would like Maryland to become the ninth. He had discovered, as the sponsor of the bill, that this issue -- much like abortion -- involves sharp and irreconcilable philosophical divisions.
These divisions were evident at today's hearing, which attracted an audience nearly as large as the one at the General Assembly abortion hearing. Many of the same members of the state's Right to Life Movement who testified against state-funded abortions at the Monday hearing were back again today opposing the "Death with Dignity" bill.
"This is simply an attempt to redefine death as good," said Sheila Wharam, a representative of the Maryland Right to Life Action group, which opposes abortion.
Added John Down, another member of that organization: "It sets the stage for more positive euthanasia. If you can kill a child in the womb, it doesn't take long to reach the conslusion that why not end with so-called dignity a life that appears to be useless and unproductive."
Less emotional objections came from Father Neil O'Donnell of the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore and Dr. Raymond Donovan of the Medical and Chirurgical Socity of Maryland, both of whom said that they sympathized with the "Death with Dignity" movement but felt it should not be the subject of legislation.
"After 25 years in medicine, I still don't know what is 'ordinary' and 'extraordinary' in an effort to sustain life," said Denovan. "It's not something you can legislate. At the present time, physicians are handling this problem in the most humane way -- when to treat patients or not to treat them. This is done all the time without legislation."