National right-to-die advocates are hoping their recent success in California will boost their efforts to allow terminally ill patients to legally end their lives in Maryland and the District.
On Monday, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed legislation making his state the fifth to allow doctors to prescribe fatal drugs to patients facing imminent deaths. At least two dozen states are considering similar laws on medically assisted suicide.
While New Jersey and New York are considered the next states to push for the laws, advocates say the success in California helps buoy efforts in the District and Maryland.
“Because it’s such a diverse and large state, it shows how widespread support really is for aid-in-dying and death with dignity,” said Brandi Alexander, a regional organizer with the national advocacy group Compassion and Choices.
California’s law is modeled after one in Oregon, first approved by voters in 1994. Patients must self-administer medication with approval from two doctors who confirm that they are mentally sound and have less than six months to live.
The movement was reinvigorated last year after Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old California woman with brain cancer, went public with her plans to move to Oregon to legally end her life.
Maryland on Tuesday held a workshop on an assisted-suicide bill introduced by Del. Shane E. Pendergrass (D-Howard) where lawmakers heard from officials in Vermont and Oregon about the implementation of similar laws. Pendergrass started the hearing by reading Brown’s letter in signing California’s law, highlighting that the governor said he would not take options from others facing excruciating death despite his Catholic background.
Oregon officials told lawmakers that nearly two decades of experience with prescribing fatal drugs showed that fears of coerced death do not come to fruition. Opponents of the laws in Oregon and Vermont countered that ending lives is antithetical to a doctor’s role.
Lynne Vitzthum, a lobbyist for people with disabilities in Vermont, told lawmakers that nursing home staffers repeatedly told a 90-year-old woman admitted for a broken wrist that she could end her life. Vitzthum said she believed it was because Vermont mandated that doctors tell patients about end-of-life options.
Maryland lawmakers are expected to discuss amending the right-to-die bill at a workshop scheduled for December.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who has been battling Stage 3 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma since June, has not publicly weighed in since March.
“I’ve got some issues about helping people terminate their lives, but I also understand that some people go through some very difficult times and they’re suffering,” Hogan said at a news conference in March.
Efforts are more stagnant in the District.
A bill by D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) was the subject of a long and emotional hearing in July, but it’s now in limbo.
Its fate rests with Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), who decides if it advances as chair of the Health and Human Services Committee.
Alexander, whose father died from colon cancer in hospice care, previously expressed concerns about how to ensure a patient’s diagnosis is terminal and whether assisted suicide would affect life insurance payouts. Her spokeswoman, Tiffany Browne, said other health-care bills are taking priority and did not have a timeline for action on the right-to-die bill.
Even if the proposal makes it out of the D.C. Council, Congress could override the legislation.