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General Assembly Considers ‘Death With Dignity’

Brittany Maynard sparked aid-in-dying legislation across the country after she moved to Oregon to end her life under that state's death with dignity legislation. She had an inoperable brain tumor. (Courtesy Compassion and Choices)
Brittany Maynard sparked aid-in-dying legislation across the country after she moved to Oregon to end her life under that state's death with dignity legislation. She had an inoperable brain tumor. (Courtesy Compassion and Choices)
Brittany Maynard sparked aid-in-dying legislation across the country after she moved to Oregon to end her life under that state's death with dignity legislation. She had an inoperable brain tumor. (Courtesy Compassion and Choices)
Brittany Maynard sparked aid-in-dying legislation across the country after she moved to Oregon to end her life under that state's death with dignity legislation. She had an inoperable brain tumor. (Courtesy Compassion and Choices)

Five states allow physicians to help terminally ill patients end their lives. Now, the Maryland General Assembly is considering legalizing the practice here. Supporters call it death with dignity. Opponents say it’s physician-assisted suicide.

The topic drew emotional testimony from both sides of the issue when a joint House committee took up the measure on Friday. Former Attorney General Steve Sachs talked about his friend Dick Israel, a former assistant Attorney General whose name is in the title of the bill. Recalling his sharp mind and impeccable style, Sachs said his friend is now in hospice, waiting to die from his advanced Parkinson’s disease. The question is whether Israel and other terminally ill Marylanders should be able to face death on their own terms, he told the committee.

“He believes that those whose minds are clear, but who lie diapered in a hospice bed able only to exist, not live, that they be given the opportunity to end an intolerable existence,” Sachs told the committee.

Israel sent his own statement making his case to the lawmakers, some of whom he used to advise. “ It is a harsh fact of life that the life inevitably ends in death. The only issue here is whether an individual should have his choice in the timing and circumstance,” Israel wrote.

“It’s about dignity, peace of mind, self-determination, compassion and family,” Aris Allen Jr. told lawmakers. He said he wished his father, a doctor and former Republican lawmaker, had the option when he was given a terminal cancer diagnosis in 1991. Without the option, he took more drastic and traumatic measure. “He found it difficult to talk to us, I think, about how he wanted to end his life. And he didn’t talk to us about it,” he said, visibly distraught. “He ended his life with a gun.”

Last month, a Goucher College poll found 60 percent of Marylanders support physician-assisted suicide. More than a dozen states are considering aid-in-dying legislation, sparked in part by 29-year-old Brittany Maynard’s decision last year to move to Oregon and end her life. She had an inoperable brain tumor.

Maryland’s proposed bill would require two doctors to sign off on a patient’s mental capacity to choose life-ending drugs. But Ann Hanson from the Maryland Psychiatric Association worried that neither is required to be a mental health professional.

“If anything a request for death should be a huge red flag that more questions are required,” Hanson said. But even if that was required, she said the state lacks enough therapists. “Inevitably from a statistical standpoint people who lack capacity will be given a lethal prescription. There just simply aren’t enough people to address the need.”

Disability rights advocates raised concerns about coercion. Jewish and Christian organizations also voiced opposition.  But Del. John Cluster’s concerns were more personal: Four years ago, his mother-in-law was told she had six months to live. If she had ended her life then, he said, she would never have met her great grandchildren. She’ll celebrate her 94th birthday this week.

“It scares me, even one mistake, one mistake, is one too many when we come to making these kinds of decisions,” he said.

But Del. Shane Pendergrass, the House sponsor, says it should be up to the patient. “It gives people a choice. And if you don’t want that choice, and you want to change your mind, that’s fine,” she said.

Gov. Larry Hogan hasn’t taken a position on the bill. But during the campaign last year, he told the Catholic Standard that he’d oppose this kind of legislation. His spokesperson declined to say if he’d consider a veto. But before it gets to his desk, it has to pass a legislature.

“I’m very optimistic that it’ll pass this year,” she said, adding, “But I am an optimist.”

A Senate committee will take up the bill Tuesday afternoon.

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Christopher Connelly is a political reporter for WYPR, covering the day-to-day movement and machinations in Annapolis. He comes to WYPR from NPR, where he was a Joan B. Kroc Fellow, produced for weekend All Things Considered and worked as a rundown editor for All Things Considered. Chris has a master’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. He’s reported for KALW (San Francisco), KUSP (Santa Cruz, Calif.) and KJZZ (Phoenix), and worked at StoryCorps in Brooklyn, N.Y. He’s filed stories on a range of topics, from a shortage of dog blood in canine blood banks to heroin addicts in Tanzania. He got his start in public radio at WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, when he was a student at Antioch College.