A move­ment in Mary­land

Ad­vo­cates of right-to-die laws bring fight to re­gion

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY OVETTA WIGGINS

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 seek sup­port for as­sisted-sui­cide pro­pos­als and of­fer in­for­ma­tion about health-care op­tions when peo­ple are se­verely in­jured or be­come 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.

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.”

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 tra­di­tion- ally 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 (DAnne 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 lawto 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 ad- vanc­ing 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.

“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 State­House, 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.

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 open­minded, pro­gres­sive leg­is­la­tor.”

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