Terminally ill patients and those who have cared for them asked Maryland lawmakers on Friday to give people facing death the right to end their lives on their own terms.
The emotional testimony comes as the Maryland General Assembly weighs a “Death With Dignity” bill, a measure that would allow doctors to prescribe lethal medications to terminally ill patients.
“I urge you to vote for this bill to give me and others some control over our final days,” said Kelly Lange, a resident of Annapolis who has stage 4 breast cancer and volunteers as a patient advocate. “Most people that I have worked with are not afraid to die. More often, they are afraid of pain, and they are afraid of losing control of their lives and bodies.”
Maryland joins the District and more than a dozen states that are considering what advocates call “aid in dying” statutes — also known as assisted suicide — this year. Momentum across the country has increased since 29-year-old Brittany Maynard, who suffered from an inoperable brain tumor, moved to Oregon to die under the state’s Death With Dignity law.
The Maryland legislation is modeled after Oregon’s law. Although its ratification chances appear slim this year, similar measures have been approved in Washington state and Vermont over the last 10 years, and judges in New Mexico and Montana have authorized them.
Under the Maryland bill, a patient who is certified to be mentally competent and who has only six months to live would be eligible for a prescription. The lethal drugs would have to be self-administered, according to the bill.
“It gives people a choice,” said Del. Shane E. Pendergrass (D-Howard), the bill’s sponsor. “It allows people to exercise some control over . . . how and when they die.”
Many delegates said they were sympathetic to those facing death, but they worried about the ability of someone who is in pain, and possibly depressed, to make a death decision. Several asked why there is no provision for the patient to see a mental health professional prior to approval.
Others raised questions about the dispensing of medication. Who would receive it? What happens to it if the person decides not to take it?
Del. Dan K. Morhaim (D-Baltimore County), one of the doctors in the General Assembly, said he didn’t understand why those questions were being raised. Dangerous prescriptions are handed out every day for various illnesses, he said, and no one raises concerns about who is picking up the prescription.
Del. John W.E. Cluster Jr. (R-Baltimore County) questioned a doctor’s ability to predict the endpoint of life. He said his mother-in-law will celebrate her 94th birthday next week, four years after she was placed in hospice and the family was told her death was imminent.
The bill is opposed by the Maryland Psychiatric Society, the Suicide Prevention Initiatives and the Maryland Disability Law Center.
“What patients need is not a right to assisted suicide but the right to adequate end-of-life care,” said Herbert Hendin, the chief executive officer of Suicide Prevention Initiatives, said in written testimony.
Maryland has taken a strong stance against assisted suicide in the past.
State lawmakers outlawed physician-assisted suicides in 1999 as part of a national backlash against Jack Kevorkian, the doctor who assisted in the suicides of dozens of terminally ill patients.
Even if the controversial measure makes it through the General Assembly, Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who is a Catholic, said before he was elected that he would oppose attempts to legalize aid in dying. “I believe a physician’s role is to save lives, not terminate them,” Hogan told the Catholic Standard, an archdiocesan newspaper, in October.