An assisted-suicide bill failed in the Maryland Senate on Thursday, effectively ending a year-long push to make the state one of just a few in the nation where doctors can prescribe a lethal dose of medicine for the terminally ill.
Sen. Ronald N. Young (D-Frederick) withdrew the legislation ahead of a scheduled vote in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee after concluding that it did not have enough support to pass.
Maryland is one of 25 states, along with the District, that have introduced what advocates call “aid-in-dying” legislation since the highly publicized suicide of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old California woman who had terminal brain cancer and moved to Oregon in 2014 to legally end her life.
But of those states, only California has passed an assisted-suicide bill. A similar proposal in Maryland failed in committee last year.
Kim Callinan, chief program officer for the advocacy group Compassion & Choices, said her organization will continue to push for passage of such legislation in Maryland and elsewhere. “From our experience, it takes multiple times,” she said. “This is not uncommon.”
In addition to California and Oregon, aid in dying is permitted, with varying restrictions, in Washington state, Vermont and Montana.
Maryland’s bill would have applied to patients thought to have fewer than six months to live. They would have had to be able to take the medication without outside help.
Although a majority of Marylanders have expressed support in surveys for assisted suicide, the bill was strongly opposed by the Catholic Church and disability rights advocates. Opponents said that low-income, minority and disabled communities have limited options for good medical care and could be unduly pressured to ask doctors to help end their lives to avoid more-expensive options.
Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, said she was “relieved” that the legislation did not advance.
“Our opposition is one that we share on behalf of the many vulnerable populations that we advocate for,” she said. “We’re pleased to see that another year they will not be in harm’s way.”
The bill needed six votes to move out of committee and come before the full Senate. Only two committee members, Sens. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery) and Lisa A. Gladden (D-Baltimore), who were co-sponsors, supported it. Five members said they opposed the legislation.
Young would have needed all four of the remaining senators on the committee to vote in favor of the bill for it to advance. He said he got word Thursday that two of the four planned to vote against the measure.
“Had I thought it still had a chance, I would have let it go,” Young said.
Noting that a recent Goucher College poll showed widespread support for assisted suicide, Young said those who oppose the bill are going against the will of the people.
“Every demographic group supports it,” he said. “Catholics support it, Jews support it, African Americans support it, Republicans support it. More than 50 percent of every group supports it and the general public, 65 percent. But I think people on the committee let their own views come in.”
Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), chairman of the committee, said he was uncertain how he would have voted. “I’m very torn,” Zirkin said. “I hadn’t made up my mind.”
Young said he does not know if he will sponsor a similar bill next year. But Callinan said her group plans to continue to push for the legislation.
“We will not rest until Maryland lawmakers heed the will of the majority of their constituents and pass this bill,” she said.
A companion bill is pending in the House of Delegates. But even if it succeeded, it would have to go through the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and then the full Senate to become law.
Del. Shane E. Pendergrass (D-Howard), the sponsor of the House legislation, said she is weighing the merits of trying to move the legislation forward, knowing that it probably would be blocked by the Senate panel.
“It’s a sad day for a lot of people,” Pendergrass said. “It’s very hard for me to understand anybody’s need to control someone else who has six months left to live — and to tell them they don’t have this option.”