The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Maryland House approves aid-in-dying bill after emotional debate

Maryland could become the eighth state in the country to give dying patients the power to determine when their lives will end through assisted suicide. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)
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One lawmaker told her colleagues of the excruciating pain she endured during breast cancer treatments. Another talked about a former state senator, alive and well 15 years after he was comatose and given a 1 percent chance of survival. A third spoke tearfully of his mother’s unsuccessful attempt to take her own life while battling terminal cancer.

The stories provided an emotional backdrop for a historic vote Thursday in the Maryland House of Delegates on whether to allow doctors to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill patients who want to end their lives.

After more than an hour of debate, the House voted 74 to 66 to approve the aid-in-dying bill, opening the door for Maryland to become the eighth state in the nation — and the first below the Mason-Dixon Line — to give dying patients the power to determine when their lives will end. The measure had stalled repeatedly in Annapolis in past years.

“It’s the right time,” said Del. Shane Pendergrass (D-Howard), the lead bill sponsor in the House, who has introduced the bill in four of the past five years. “There are people suffering; people who could be helped, and people who want control. . . . Why wouldn’t we help them?”

Thursday’s vote reflected a shift in public attitudes on physician-assisted suicide but also made clear that opinion on the subject remains deeply divided in Maryland, which has a large African American population that traditionally has been slower to embrace end-of-life options than more secular, mostly white communities.

While supporters described the measure as a compassionate option for patients seeking to end their suffering, critics spoke with equal passion about not wanting humans to decide when life ends, and the risk that elderly and disabled people could be coerced into ending their own lives.

Del. Jay Walker (D-Prince George’s), one of 17 black lawmakers who voted against the measure, said the members of the General Assembly were “overstepping our bounds,” adding that he will always “give our Lord the opportunity for a miracle.”

Del. Cheryl Glenn (D-Baltimore City), a former chair of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland, described a conversation with former senator Larry Young, who was ill for years before falling into a coma but subsequently recovered. She said Young probably would have asked a doctor for a lethal prescription had the option been available when he became sick.

“If people take this option, you don’t get a do-over,” Glenn said. “We don’t know what tomorrow holds.”

Longtime House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) voted for the bill, while Speaker Pro Tem Adrienne Jones and Dels. Dereck Davis and Anne Healey, each of whom chairs a committee, voted against it. Busch, who is Catholic, said in 2016 that he had come to support aid in dying, in part after watching two friends experience painful deaths. At the same time, he described the issue as controversial and deeply personal, and said he would not impose his views on other lawmakers.

The bill now moves to the Senate, where sponsor Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery) — who watched from the House floor while the tally was counted — expects a close vote.

If the Senate approves the bill, it would go to Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who could choose to sign it, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature. The legislature probably would not be able to muster the supermajority needed to override a veto, leaders in both chambers have said.

As a candidate in 2014, Hogan, who is also Catholic, told a Catholic publication that doctors should save lives, not terminate them. He has since said he would look at any aid-in-dying bill carefully, and understands both sides of the issue.

Oregon was the first state to enact aid-in-dying legislation, which is sometimes referred to as “death with dignity” or physician-assisted suicide — approving a ballot measure in 1994. Momentum began to build in other states after the highly publicized 2014 death of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old California woman with terminal brain cancer who moved to Oregon to end her life legally.

Today, nearly 20 percent of all Americans live in jurisdictions where aid-in-dying is legal, according to the Denver-based advocacy group Compassion & Choices. In addition to the District, patients have the option in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Montana, Oregon, Vermont and Washington state.

The Maryland bill is modeled after Oregon’s law and would apply to terminally ill people whose doctors say they have less than six months to live. A patient would have to make three requests, both oral and written, to end his or her life, with waiting periods and the ability to rescind the request at any time.

Opponents say the bill undermines the sanctity of life. The Maryland Catholic Conference calls the legislation “dangerously flawed.”

Del. J. Sandy Bartlett (D-Anne Arundel), who voted for the bill, said she prayed silently before addressing her colleagues, “because I’m a Christian.” She told her colleagues that she is also a cancer survivor and would want the option to end her life if she were in pain and had six months to live.

“I do not want anyone forcing me to live in pain, or in a drug state, or dying inhumanely in hospice,” she said.

A couple of delegates sobbed during the debate. One buried her head in her arms on her desk. The House chamber fell silent as Del. Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery) talked about his mother, who raised him on her own and in 2014 received a diagnosis of stage 3 esophageal cancer.

A few days before his mother died, Luedtke said, she tried to drink a bottle of liquid morphine, “because of that pain, because of the humiliation she felt.” He said his mother’s experience changed his opinion on a bill he once opposed.

“Despite my personal hatred for suicide, what right do I have as a government official, even as her son, to say how her life should end?” said Luedke, his voice full of emotion. “This bill, in my opinion, is not the government putting its finger on the scales. It’s government taking its finger off the scales.”

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