Lawmakers debate right-to-die legislation

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Barbara Ruben and Brian Witte

When Maryland Del. Shane Pendergrass (D-Howard) was a teenager, she watched her grandfather suffer terribly from Parkinson’s disease.

So when Roger “Pip” Moyer, the former Mayor of Annapolis, and Richard E. Israel, former assistant attorney general, who both also had late-stage Parkinson’s, asked Pendergrass to sponsor legislation that would allow Marylanders with less than six months to live to be prescribed drugs that would end their lives, she agreed.

The death with dignity bill is named after Israel, who is in hospice, and Moyer, who died in January. It has been introduced in both houses of the General Assembly, and Pendergrass says she is “very optimistic” that it will pass before the session adjourns for the year on April 13.

Other legislators feel support is lacking and the bill will probably be reintroduced next year, after more discussion among voters and legislators. The legislation is sponsored in the state Senate by Sen. Ronald Young (D-Frederick and Washington Counties).

The measure would allow adults, whose doctors have given them a prognosis of six months or less to live, to obtain a prescription that would induce their death. To qualify, the patient must submit a written request witnessed by two persons, at least one of whom is not a relative or in any way a benefactor from the person’s death. The patient must also be able to self-administer the drugs

Who will it help?

In a poll of 600 Marylanders conducted by Goucher College in February, respondents were asked if they support or oppose a policy with the same stipulations as the legislation. Sixty percent of respondents said they support the policy, and 35 percent opposed it.

Pendergrass said she feels the legislation is important for older adults. “I’m 65 years old, so this stage of life is sort of the last stage of life. We all know what comes, and the question is how. This gives people some control over how if they are really suffering.”

Pendergrass said that she anticipates the legislation would most help cancer patients because, unlike many patients with Parkinson’s or ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), they would be more likely to be able to self-administer the medication within six months of death.

“So this is not going to help everyone,” she said. “The people who might really need it, and whom I might really want to help, may not all benefit.”

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said he is taking a serious look at the measure, and he hasn’t yet reached a decision.

“I’m kind of torn on the issue, because I’ve got some issues about, you know, helping people terminate their lives, but I also understand that some people go through some very difficult times, and they’re suffering. I see both sides of the issue,’’ he told reporters.

Opponents’ concerns

Critics contend it is nearly impossible to predict whether someone has six months or less to live. Opponents also say the bill does not require doctors to give patients a screening for depression before providing the prescription.

Del. John Cluster (R-Baltimore County) cited the example of his mother-in-law, who had severe intestinal disease and was advised to enter hospice by her doctor.

“Now four years later, we’re celebrating her 94th birthday. In that particular case, she may have taken the drug to end her life. She now has two great-grandkids, who would never have been able to see her,” Cluster said.

“The doctors aren’t God. They just can’t make those decisions.”

Former Baltimore Ravens football player O.J. Brigance, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2007, agrees. He testified against the legislation in a March hearing. He said that he has led some of the most productive years of his life while living with a challenging illness from which people generally die between two and five years after being diagnosed.

“The thought that there would be a legal avenue for an individual to take his or her own life in a moment of despair — robbing family, friends and society of their presence and contribution to society — deeply saddens me and is a tragedy,’’ Brigance testified, speaking with the help of a machine while sitting in a wheelchair.

At the hearing, Aris T. Allen Jr., the son of the former lawmaker who was elected the first black chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, recounted how his father shot himself while suffering from cancer in 1991.

“He would often say, ‘I want to die with my boots on.’ He being from Texas, I think you understood what he meant,” Allen testified. “As a medical doctor, he saw firsthand the pain and suffering of terminally ill persons, and that’s not how he wanted to die.”

Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont and Washington are the only states that currently have right-to-die measures in place. The issue received national attention last year when Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old Oregon woman diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, decided to take her own life with prescription drugs and used her scheduled death to advocate for greater acceptance of the idea.

For the full text of the proposed legislation, visit www.mgaleg.maryland.gov and enter bill #SB676.

Brian Witte writes for the Associated Press