Maryland, a state where lawmakers abolished the death penalty and made same-sex marriage legal, would seem fertile ground for an aid-in-dying bill. But the state also has deep Catholic roots and a large African American population, and both of those communities have long opposed assisted suicide for the terminally ill.
At a hearing Friday on a bill that would make Maryland the sixth state to legalize aid in dying, dozens of witnesses waited hours to testify. There were terminal patients who said they deserve the option to legally end their lives and caregivers who described loved ones committing suicide to cut short their suffering. There were religious leaders and disability advocates who argued that “every life” is precious, and a young woman who survived brain cancer as a child after doctors said she had little time to live.
“Guess those doctors were pretty wrong,” she said.
And then there was the Rev. Eric King, an African American minister from Baltimore who last year watched his wife, diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer, testify in favor of assisted suicide in defiance of their church’s teachings. That bill never made it out of committee. Marlene King died last fall, her body withered to 90 pounds, her last days full of pain.
“I want to carry on her work,” King told delegates at a joint hearing Friday of the House Judiciary Committee and the House Health and Government Operations Committee. “God allows choices. . . . I look at it as there are two types of healing. One is for a person to be restored to a quality of life and wellness. And death is also a form and act of healing. Death is God’s grace for people of faith, for anguish and suffering to end and to be in the presence of our Creator.”
Maryland’s bill is modeled on the measure approved in California last year after the highly publicized case of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old Bay Area woman with terminal brain cancer who moved to Oregon to legally kill herself. Aid in dying is also permitted, with varying restrictions, in Washington state, Vermont and Montana.
In Maryland, the legislation appears to face an uphill battle.
Sponsors say they are optimistic about its chances in the House of Delegates, where it has the support of one Republican, Del. Christopher R. West (Baltimore County), who considers aid in dying a liberty issue, and many first-term Democrats.
They are less certain about the legislation getting out of the 11-member Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which has scheduled a hearing for Thursday. Five committee members oppose the measure, including all four of the committee’s Republicans. Two panel members, both Democrats, are co-sponsors.
For the bill to move forward, advocates must persuade the four undecided Democrats: Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (Baltimore County), who is the committee chair, and Sens. Susan C. Lee (Montgomery), C. Anthony Muse (Prince George’s) and Victor R. Ramirez (Prince George’s).
But opponents of the bill are lobbying those lawmakers, too. Ramirez, who is Catholic, said two constituents expressed their concerns to him during a dinner sponsored by the church.
“Same-sex marriage was about treating people the same. The death penalty was where we have an imperfect system, and the government shouldn’t be in the business of deciding life or death,” Ramirez said.
With aid in dying, he said, “we could be going down a slippery slope. Once you allow someone to perform this procedure, you can’t reverse it. . . . Are we going to look back in 10 years and wonder did we do the right thing?”
The Maryland Catholic Conference and disability rights advocates say the bill could open the door for mistreatment of the disabled, elderly and minority communities, which they say already experience disparities in health-care access.
“Legalizing suicide as a medical course-of-action will only serve to further erode the healthcare that vulnerable people currently receive, especially since it is much less expensive than continuing treatments,” said a statement that was given to the 300 Catholics who came to Annapolis this month for Catholic Lobby Night, an annual event at which members of the church talk to lawmakers about bills.
The main focus this year: stopping “physician-assisted suicide,” a term listed on their documents and one that proponents of the bill abhor.
At the hearing Friday, Georgetown University School of Medicine doctor Kevin Donovan called the bill “discriminatory and not progressive.”
“It creates, by law, a class of people whose lives should no longer be preserved,” Donovan said. “It favors the white elite, not the sort of thing that progressives want to get behind.”
Proponents of the bill say safeguards have been added to the measure to ensure that no one is taken advantage of. They say there have been no reported instances of coerced death in Oregon, where legislation was approved in 1994, or in any of the other states that have legalized aid in dying.
About three dozen volunteers from the nonprofit group Compassion & Choices, which is leading the effort to build support for the bill, recently held a lobbying day, spending hours knocking on legislators’ office doors.
One volunteer met with Muse, the Judicial Proceedings Committee member and an African Methodist Episcopal minister. She said the lawmaker told her that he is “open” to the idea of aid in dying — a statement she counted as a small victory.
Asked about the legislation on Friday, Muse said he remains undecided.
Lobbyist W. Minor Carter is working for the bill pro bono, in memory of his friend, Richard E. Israel, a former assistant attorney general who died last summer after a long bout with Parkinson’s disease.
Carter said he has run into more than a few roadblocks as he tries to sway lawmakers with whom he normally discusses insurance and other, less-fraught issues.
Some flatly refused to meet with him. “They say there is no need to waste my time,” Carter said. “They’re Catholic, they say.”
So Carter moves to the next name on his list. He knows that House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), a Catholic, reversed his position on the aid-in-dying bill last year after reflecting on his own life and the deaths of two friends. Carter said he hopes that there are other lawmakers out there ready to be persuaded.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who is in remission after a bout with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma last year, has not taken a position on the bill.
Hogan, who is also Catholic, indicated as a candidate that he would oppose aid-in-dying legislation. But he said in March — before his cancer diagnosis — that he could see both sides of the issue. He has since become an outspoken advocate for cancer patients, spending hours with people who are fighting the disease.
Several black and Hispanic lawmakers said they have not heard from constituents either for or against the bill. That could change if the legislation makes it out of committee and comes before the full Senate or House for consideration.
“The black community is generally of the position — when it’s your time, it’s your time, God won’t take you no sooner than your time,” said Del. Charles E. Sydnor III (D-Baltimore County), a member of the House Judiciary Committee who is African American. “It’s not going to be an easy vote.”