A bill that would allow terminally ill adults in Maryland to take their own lives appears likely to fail in committee for the second straight year, its lead sponsor said Wednesday.
With a vote expected Thursday, none of the four lawmakers whose support is needed to move the Death With Dignity Act to the full state Senate appears ready to commit to the measure, Sen. Ronald N. Young (D-Frederick) said.
“I have a feeling we don’t have the votes to get it to the floor,” Young said. “I talked to several of the people who were on the fence, and got no affirmative answer from any of them.”
The bill, which would allow doctors to prescribe a fatal dose of medication to patients who are expected to die within six months, has drawn strong support from advocates and families of the terminally ill but equally passionate opposition from the Roman Catholic Church, disability rights groups and others.
Two members of the 11-person Judicial Proceedings Committee are co-sponsoring the legislation, while five members have said they oppose it. That means each of the remaining four lawmakers on the panel would have to vote in favor for it to advance. Two of them — Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), the committee chair, and Sen. Victor R. Ramirez (D-Prince George’s) — expressed reservations Wednesday.
“We don’t want people who are not receiving proper health care to see this as the option they have,” said Ramirez, citing testimony from bill opponents that poor people and the disabled could opt to end their lives early because options for medical treatment are too expensive or appear out of reach.
Zirkin said he shared those concerns. He was troubled that no amendments have been offered to the legislation to ensure that it would not be used in an unethical way. “I have to make a decision on if it’s the right public policy,” he said.
A third undecided lawmaker, Sen. Susan C. Lee (D-Montgomery), called aid in dying “a tough issue” and said “there are compelling arguments on both sides.”
The fourth undecided lawmaker, Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George’s), declined to comment.
Maryland’s bill is modeled after a law passed in California last year following the highly publicized death of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old San Francisco Bay area woman with terminal brain cancer who moved to Oregon to commit suicide legally. A handful of other states also allow some form of assisted suicide, although a right-to-die measure failed in Colorado last week.
In Maryland, a recent Goucher College poll found that 60 percent of state residents support allowing terminally ill adults to take their own lives. Young said the bill appears to have widespread support in the full Senate, and perhaps in the full House as well.
But proponents of the bill said they knew they were fighting an uphill battle to push the bill out of committee, given the state’s strong African American and Catholic communities, both of which have historically been uncomfortable with assisted suicide.
The Maryland Catholic Conference made defeating the bill its top priority this legislative session — joining with disability rights advocates to say the measure could open the door for mistreatment of the disabled, the elderly and minorities, and arguing that those groups 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 distributed in Annapolis on Catholic Lobby Night.
Lawmakers heard hours of emotional testimony on the bill during hearings in both chambers of the General Assembly. There were terminally ill patients who pleaded for the option to end their lives and caregivers who described the painful deaths of their loved ones. And there were religious leaders and disability advocates who argued that “every life” is precious and raised concerns about the potential for abuse.
Proponents of Maryland’s bill have worked since last year to build momentum for the measure. They invited small groups to watch the documentary “How to Die in Oregon” (2011), about that state’s assisted-suicide law, and held “house parties” where they served refreshments and offered information about end-of-life options for the terminally ill.
Several senators said they expect the committee to vote on the bill Thursday, and for it to fail to muster the six votes needed to advance. Young said the bill could just be quietly dropped from consideration.
“Every demographic group supports the bill,” he said in frustration. “I consider this a personal choice. If you don’t like it, don’t do it.”