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Right-to-die advocates pushing hard for legislation in Maryland in 2016

At a rally in Annapolis, Md., on March 4, 2015, Del. Shane E. Pendergrass (D-Howard County) explains her bill to allow terminally ill people the option of filling a prescription for drugs to hasten their deaths. (Brian Witte/AP)

Earlier versions of this story incorrectly said advocates are holding “house parties” that offer information about health-care options when people are severely injured or become terminally ill. The parties only provide information about end-of-life options for the terminally ill.

Advocates of assisted suicide are significantly expanding their efforts to build support in Maryland for broader end-of-life options, hopeful that a recent victory in California will provide new momentum for legislation that failed to get out of committee in Annapolis this year.

Across the state, organizers are meeting with faith-based communities; inviting small groups to watch the documentary "How to Die in Oregon," about that state's assisted-suicide law; and serving coffee and doughnuts at "house parties" that offer information about end-of-life options for people who are terminally ill.

The recent signing of California's assisted-suicide bill by Gov. Jerry Brown (D) "has made us even more motivated to make sure Marylanders have the same options," said Donna Smith, a field consultant in Maryland for the Denver-based organization Compassion & Choices.

California is fifth state to legalize assisted suicide

Last year, Compassion & Choices had one “action team” of volunteers working in Maryland. This year, Smith said, the organization has six. Its database of Maryland residents has more than 10,000 names.

Maryland is one of several states, including New York, where national advocates for assisted suicide plan to focus their efforts for the upcoming legislative sessions. They have also worked in the District, where the most recent right-to-die legislation also failed to get out of committee.

“I think that this is a national wave,” said Maryland Del. Shane E. Pendergrass (D-Howard), who sponsored legislation modeled after Oregon’s right-to-die law in the 2015 legislative session and plans to do so again in January. “The more discussion there is, the more we think about it, and the more chance there is for more lawmakers to realize that it is good to give people an option to be able to control the last six months of their life.”

In Oregon, Brittany Maynard ends her life at 29

Under the bill, a patient who is certified to be mentally competent and whose survival is forecast to be no more than six months would be eligible for a prescription to obtain lethal drugs, which would have to be self-administered.

The idea is anathema in parts of Maryland, a strongly Catholic state with a large African American population, which traditionally has been slower to embrace assisted suicide than more secular, mostly white communities.

Smith, who is African American, said one of her goals in Maryland is to change the widespread perception that assisted suicide is an issue that affects only wealthy white people.

Longtime Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who is Catholic, did not take a position on previous assisted-suicide legislation. But he said in the past week that he would support a law to legalize aid in dying in Maryland, as long as the bill had proper restrictions and guidelines. Busch, 68, said he was influenced by his own advancing age as well as by seeing other states approve legislation and witnessing two friends suffer painful deaths.

Busch described “death with dignity” as deeply personal and acknowledged that it is highly controversial, much like the state’s legalization of same-sex marriage in 2012. He said he would not impose his position on other lawmakers.

Maryland approves same-sex marriage in historic vote

“There are many people who are dying inch by inch, who would like to have the option,” Busch said. “I’ve gotten to a point in my own mind where this is an issue I personally support.”

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and Gov. Larry Hogan (R) declined to comment on the issue in recent days.

During his 2014 gubernatorial campaign, Hogan, a Catholic, told the Catholic Standard, a publication of the Archdiocese of Washington, that he believed “a physician’s role is to save lives, not terminate them.” He said he would oppose efforts to legalize aid in dying.

In March, after he became governor and as the bill was being debated in the State House, he softened his stance.

“I’ve got some issues about helping people terminate their lives, but I also understand that some people go through some very difficult times and they’re suffering,” said Hogan, who has since received a diagnosis of advanced non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“I see both sides of the issue,” he said in March.

Hogan has not addressed the topic since his cancer diagnosis in June. He is completing a rigorous 18-week course of chemotherapy and has become a strong advocate for cancer patients across the state.

Hogan as advocate: ‘I never expected to be in this position’

State Sen. Victor R. Ramirez (D-Prince George’s), chairman of a legislative work group that has been studying assisted suicide in other states, said he has listened to the arguments on both sides of the issue and remains undecided about how he would vote on a bill.

The work group consists of 10 lawmakers with a variety of views on the issue. Some oppose aid in dying; some support it; and others, like Ramirez, are struggling with it. Ramirez said end-of-life options have not been an issue widely talked about in his family or his community.

"I have mixed feelings," he said. "I'm still learning about the issue. . . . I don't see it as an easy decision one way or another. I'm not sure how I will vote for it, and I consider myself an open-minded, progressive legislator."